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No reprieve for trees in path of SW Light Rail

Neighbors and elected officials have asked for a delay in clearing trees for LRT construction.

MINNEAPOLIS — We've known for years that the Southwest Light Rail project would claim a lot of trees along the Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis, but judgment day is almost here.

The Southwest LRT office announced Monday that the trail will close as early as May 13th, and crews may start cutting down trees shortly afterwards. An estimated 1,300 trees will be removed from the area between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake.

"It's required because we need space to build the project," Jim Alexander, the project manager, told KARE. "And so, the trees, unfortunately, have to come out to make room for that."

The $2 billion project, which will run between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis, will take at least three years to build. The route passes through the Kenilworth Corridor where the popular trail runs parallel to the existing the Twin Cities and Western freight rail line.

Two state lawmakers and three members of the Minneapolis Parks Board wrote Met Council Chair Nora Slawik, asking her to prolong the lives of those trees.

They asked Slawik to delay cutting down the trees until all of the matching federal funds fall into place and all of the lawsuits challenging the proposed route are resolved in the courts.

"This has been so tentative for so many years, why can't we wait a little bit longer in actually cutting those trees down?" Meg Forney, one of the parks commissioners who signed the letter, told KARE.

She said neighbors and elected officials in Minneapolis are worried the trees could be chopped down needlessly if the project funding were to fall through in the end.

"Until we have a firmer understanding of the financing, and whether or not that is solidified, why damage the ecosystem?" Forney said.

Slawik responded in writing, saying the trees can't be spared because the project must stay on schedule. She asserted that waiting until all puzzle pieces fall into place could also jeopardize the status of project.

The Federal Transportation Authority issued the "Letter of No Prejudice" last fall, essentially giving Hennepin County and the Met Council the green light to proceed with construction, using local funding.

Alexander said it's common for construction to begin on a light rail project before all of the federal matching money has arrived. That was his experience on the first leg of the Green Line in St. Paul, which was known as the Central Corridor during construction.

"On the Central Corridor we were under construction for nearly two years before we got that Full Funding Grant Agreement, so there are processes the FTA has to allow projects to start moving ahead before the FFGA comes along." Alexander said.

He pointed out the construction plan calls for 1,100 new trees and a wide variety of vegetation to be planted in the corridor after construction ends and the Kenilworth Trail reopens.

Forney said she understood what Slawik and Alexander are saying, but said there should be a wage to stage the work to allow the thickest part of the forested area to thrive as long as possible.

"Trees are the lungs of our city. They're our biggest tool for fighting climate change." Forney said.

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