City Centered: In the Dark on the Light Rail

Beware of what passes for knowledge on hot button urban issues.

Light Rail Transit Minneapolis
Photo courtesy Metro Transit

Last month I went to an event that reinforced a long-held suspicion of mine: that most of us only pay enough attention to justify our own personal opinions.

It was a Kenwood neighborhood meeting, basically a bitch session where public officials circulated to listen to constituents on the issue that’s riven the area for the past year: how to accommodate freight trains that currently run alongside what will be the new Southwest Light Rail Transit line.

The options included a $200 million-plus tunnel for light rail, adding light rail to the current freight right of way (lawsuit city), or moving the freight trains to St. Louis Park on an alignment of tall berms. We were divided into groups and asked to find a volunteer to collate various views. I spent an hour taking notes from concerned citizens who could be pigeonholed as self-centered posing as community-minded, hyperbolic, nostalgic and change averse, or paranoid.

We were asked to find common ground. Given that the table was divided between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park constituents, I suggested the possibility of a solution that left SLP untouched while still removing freight rail, as once promised, from the LRT corridor. Your basic best of all possible worlds.

One woman could not be mollified even by that fantasy. She suspected the railroads had designs on the entire neighborhood and would gladly flood south Minneapolis with Bakken oil, burning everything from Rustica to Patina and back again.

What I found most alarming was how many spoke with such certitude about something they so poorly understood. I blanched at their willingness to mock the studied beliefs of unbiased experts or those schooled in topics like engineering and urban planning.

To use Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s legendary quote: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” If it was true for George W. Bush, it’s also got to be true for Kenwood, St. Louis Park, and the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association.

It would have been refreshing to hear just one person say, “I don’t like this plan because it will disturb my lifestyle, ruin my view, bring undesirable people to Lake of the Isles, yada, yada, yada.”

But community-minded folk know they need a reason that doesn’t make them seem selfish, so they deny they are NIMBYs and quote a higher ideal. Children (inevitably) were said to be in danger; the fragile ecosystem of the city lakes was hanging by a thread; poor people on Nicollet and Hennepin were crying out for LRT; a conspiracy to benefit Eden Prairie at Minneapolis’s expense was at work; and affluent south siders posited their certitudes about how working-class north siders use transit. Ugh.

I don’t think anyone heard them. The politicos may have been listening, but the only opinions that are going to count are those of federal regulators, funding stakeholders, and perhaps the big Kenwood DFL donors who put the fear of God into Gov. Dayton last fall.

I wish money didn’t talk so loudly in matters of public policy, but our neighborhood vent session was a stark reminder of the equivalent dangers of the vox populi: We give public officials lots of heat but little light.

Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.