“This project flunks the fairness test”

Statement on Southwest LRT by Peter Wagenius, representing Mayor R.T. Rybak, at the Southwest Corridor Management Committee October 2, 2013

This is a very sad, very disappointing day for many citizens of Minneapolis.  That includes many long-time residents who feel they have been misled for 17 years. Mayor Rybak represents those residents — and on their behalf, I’d like to state the following.

Mayor Rybak is a strong supporter of Southwest LRT.  And he has acted accordingly, going above and beyond on multiple occasions.

The Mayor didn’t want Southwest LRT running on Kenilworth at all. He thought LRT should go where the most riders are — through Uptown.  But he agreed — under conditions that are now being violated — to support the County’s preferred alignment of Kenilworth. That was in 2010.

Now again in 2013, with the cost of dealing with freight rail turning out to be so much higher than expected, most of his constituents wanted him to immediately slam the door shut on the shallow-tunnels option. No delay; slam the door.  And if the Mayor was only thinking parochially, he would have done so and advocated only for his City’s narrow interest, as St. Louis Park has done so effectively.

But the Mayor saw it as his responsibility, our responsibility to the region, and to the greater good, to try to keep multiple paths to success open — even the paths he didn’t want, even paths against adopted City policy. He wanted to try to keep multiple paths to success open — as long others were doing the same.

But that is obviously no longer the case — and I think it hasn’t been for some time.

So why did the Mayor want to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket?

Because that is exactly what got this project in such a giant mess on the first place.  In particular, it has proven foolish to put all our eggs in one basket if the project believes the railroads own that basket, which obviously the project does.

There’s seems to have been this impression that at the end of the day the railroads were going to act in the public interest, which is crazy. They are private interests. The failure is not theirs for acting in their own interest; the failure is on the project for not anticipating that.

Which bring us to the representations that were made to the City when it agreed to drop further consideration of Uptown alignments, and support Kenilworth, again with conditions that are now being violated.

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that there really wasn’t a real plan for how to handle freight, and that the can was just being kicked down the road, he never would have agreed to support Kenilworth.

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that rerouting freight meant that we would be required to apply to the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), which the region would consider an unacceptable hassle, but that we would not be required to apply to the STB to keep the freight in Kenilworth, then he would have said, “Then the project has a built-in incentive to not keep the very promises you are making to my City and me.”

If someone had told Mayor Rybak in 2009 that the region would be unwilling to negotiate with the railroads and that the railroads could ask for whatever they wanted and the region would give it to them, he would have said “Then that’s an open-ended cost escalator. You have no idea how much the promised re-route actually costs.”

Of course, no one told Mayor Rybak any of those things. I was there in the room with him. They said, “Mayor, your alignment costs $1.4 billion and that’s too expensive.”  He responded, “But you haven’t factored in freight with your alignment.” And they said, “No, Mayor. That’s separate. We’ve got that covered. We have a plan.”

Mayor Rybak is less prone to regret than anyone I have ever known, but I’m sure among his biggest regrets is the faith he placed in the assurances he was provided about freight rail in 2009.

So this project obviously flunks the fairness test.  This project is breaking the promise made to Minneapolis so as to facilitate St. Louis Park breaking the promise it made to the region.

But fairness is not the only measure. If it was, the Mayor would have slammed the door shut on the shallow tunnel, as he was repeatedly asked to do.

Transparency of the process is also an important measure.

Most of all, this project suffers from “Failure to Factor in Freight.” Seventeen years’ worth of failure to factor in freight.

First, there was the failure to get a binding agreement with either St. Louis Park or the railroads 17 years ago. Some consider that “ancient history,” but we are still living with impacts of that failure today.

Moreover, the failure to factor in freight runs right up to the present day. September 4 was not 17 years ago, it was just four weeks ago. On September 4, the Met Council committed to a new freight-rail study.

On September 4, Commissioner Dorfman said that the existing freight reroute option works for TC&W and CP, the railroads.  It’s building a sort of a Cadillac version they would never invest to build for themselves for so few trains.  So I don’t support that.”

Later, Commissioner Dorfman noted that there were still so many unanswered questions, and added, “So I look forward to the next couple of weeks getting those questions answered. I look forward to hopefully having this group come in, TTCI from Pueblo, Colorado, who I am told are absolutely, I’ve been told, the best in the business to take a look at what we studied in the past, but to give us a second opinion. I look forward to coming back together with more information.”

On September 4, Mayor Schneider, whose advocacy for a responsible process we very much appreciate, spoke of the value of “doing a thorough, exhaustive evaluation, “reining in the expectations of the rail companies,” and how this was “a critical element in not just getting Minneapolis satisfied, but the general public satisfied that we’ve looked at all the various alternatives.”

Finally, on September 4, Chair Haigh said about the study that was going to be performed by TTCI, “We’re going to have a chance to hear from them. So you’ll be able to ask those questions when they come forward.  I just want everyone to know this a thorough, honest, deep assessment of the relocation alternative in St. Louis Park. There are a lot of questions that people have raised. These questions are going to get answered in this study.”

Of course, we know that didn’t happen. TTCI didn’t do the promised study. They are not here to answer our questions. They announced they had a conflict of interest and left town.

We expect that the weeks ahead will include lots of focus on the product. And the product reflects the hard work of great staff of many agencies, trying to make the best of this situation. Staff deserves a lot of credit for their hard work.

But both these products — both the last two options that we are choosing between — are not the logical products of a fair, transparent and rational process. They are simply what’s left. They are what’s left from a process that contained serious flaws.