The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 9, 2013

Appearance of favoritism clouds light rail deal

Why it matters: Democratic donors appear to have unusual influence on the location of the Southwest Corridor light rail line


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The appearance of undue influence in politics and public policy can be just as bad as actual undue influence if the public loses confidence that the decisions were made in an even-handed manner.

That’s the challenge for Gov. Mark Dayton and the city of Minneapolis in handling a recent controversy on moving the Southwest Corridor light rail line away from the Kenilworth neighborhood where several well to-do Democratic donors live.

A report in the Star Tribune suggests a handful of politically connected supporters of Dayton, Mayor R.T. Rybak and other Democrats who live in Kenilworth have been able to halt the project that would have 200 light rail trains a day going through an area in close proximity to their homes.

A handful of Kenilworth residents opposing location of the line have given about $350,000 to Democrats, including Dayton and Rybak, and other liberal causes over the years, according to the Star Tribune report.

They’ve been able to delay the $1.55 billion project that will carry passengers between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis. The line was modified to go into a tunnel near the neighborhood so as to provide as little disruption as possible at a cost of about $160 million. But now, residents are objecting to a two-tenths of a mile strip where the trains would emerge from the tunnel to cross a channel between two lakes.

Some residents are also raising money for a possible legal challenge to the project.

Dayton has acknowledged the opposition to the project, telling the Star Tribune it was on a collision course with neighbors. He delayed approval for 90 days. But not all people in the Kenilworth area oppose the project. A group of townhome owners say they are not opposing it and agree the partial tunnel project mitigates some of their worries. Many communities along the line overwhelming approved of the project as well.

Dayton also contends planners need to study the impact of the tunnels on nearby lakes, but the newspaper reported an earlier study found no problems.

The opponents that live in the more affluent part of Kenilworth include Democratic fundraiser Jim Smart and retired business consultant David Lilly Jr. They make no secret that they are opposing the project and that they are influential, with Lilly telling the Star Tribune: “This is ultimately about politics.”

That may indeed be the case, but if light rail planners consider re-routing the project, they will inevitably run into the Not-in-my-backyard syndrome and will then have unfortunate choices of picking winners and losers with an appearance that money talks.

An earlier plan for a longer tunnel that would have gone under the Kenilworth channel would have cost $330 million, a price that surely would appear to average Minnesotans as a bit on the high side to placate some affluent friends of Democrats. Planners rightly rejected the idea as well.

Re-routing the light rail will involve almost going back to the drawing board. At one point planners were going to reroute a freight train line to St. Louis Park to make room for the light rail above ground. But that plan also faltered.

Any further accommodation of Kenilworth residents should be based on sound planning, engineering and efficiency standards we should apply to all public works projects. Any reason short of those will appear based on the undue influence of the influential.

Light rail has long been championed by mostly Democratic political leaders. It has always been a case of requiring some private sacrifices on the part of neighborhoods and citizens to bring about a greater public good.

It may be difficult to accommodate homeowners in Kenilworth without appearing to be serving private good at public expense.