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Met Council pausing on funding agreements for Southwest, Blue Line Extension light rail




An agreement to close an estimated $272 million shortfall in the Southwest light-rail project budget has drawn criticism from some members of the Metropolitan Council, who said they weren’t consulted before the deal was announced last week.

The $2.7 billion Southwest line — the most-expensive public works project in state history — is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie beginning in 2027.

But Met Council members, facing intense scrutiny about the way the way they oversee public transportation projects in the Twin Cities, have paused their planning on light-rail projects to collect more information before a key decision next month on funding the Blue Line Extension — giving them more time to look at the bigger financial picture.

Questions about the Southwest funding cropped up during the council’s meeting Wednesday of a $75 million Hennepin County grant for the Blue Line light-rail extension, which is forecast to connect Brooklyn Park with downtown Minneapolis in 2030.

“I have concerns about post-COVID ridership and building two [light-rail] megaprojects at a time,” said Council Member Deb Barber.

While Barber, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, said she supports extending the Blue Line, she said council members need more time to consider the projects “so we know what we’re voting on.”

Council Member Judy Johnson agreed: “I think it’s important that the council take a breath and be deliberate.”

The Southwest project has been plagued with cost overruns and delays. The agreement announced last week between the Met Council and Hennepin County outlined how they might share project’s deficit, though the amount of money needed to finish the job was not released.

Under the agreement, Hennepin County would pick up 55% of the cost to complete Southwest, with the council covering the rest using federal funds set aside for transportation purposes.

The council would also pay an additional — but undetermined — amount in start-up costs, which includes testing trains before service begins along with the hiring and training of operators.

The Southwest agreement is expected to be approved by both the council and the Hennepin County Board, though it’s unclear when that will happen.

But at several Met Council meetings last week, some members expressed frustration with the proposal and said it wasn’t properly vetted before it was announced.

Others said they worried the federal funds going to Southwest for the next three years will mean other transportation projects throughout the seven-county metro will get short shrift — including a longstanding goal to add more electric buses to Metro Transit’s fleet.

The ensuing discussion was a rare break for council members, who generally agree with staff-directed recommendations.

It was unclear who negotiated the Southwest agreement with Hennepin County; Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle did not attend the council meetings last week.

But Council Member Wendy Wulff said they were faced with “what appears to be a bad agreement.”

“We have to hold firm and get to a good agreement,” she said. “We’re not going to be the rubber stamps everyone thinks we are.”

The deal drew criticism from beyond the council as well.

Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, said Friday he was concerned that devoting much of the council’s federal funds to Southwest will shortchange the transportation needs of the southwest metro communities he represents.

“We can find a funding solution that supports the completion of the Southwest light rail — and Blue Line Extension — without sacrificing other important regional projects,” said Tabke, vice chair of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.

The Southwest announcement “was so out of left field and completely lacking in context,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who was instrumental in getting the state’s Legislative Auditor to probe the Southwest project and formation of a statewide commission that is reviewing the council’s governance structure.

“Where is the announcement that [the council] is reforming themselves so they can effectively manage these projects?” Dibble asked.

In response, Met Council spokesman John Schadl said: “The Blue Line Extension is a critical component of our regional transportation system.” He said the council will resume consideration of the Blue Line grant agreement with Hennepin County, along with Southwest’s budget, at its Sept. 13 meeting.

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Star Tribune

Rochester blocks comments on city social media pages




ROCHESTER – Residents here with questions or concerns about city government will no longer be able to use official city social media pages to air their grievances.

On Wednesday, the city of Rochester began restricting social media users from leaving comments on posts from its official Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as pages for parks, police and other departments.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the policy is in response to what she described as “counterproductive” activity on the city’s social media pages.

“Discontinuing the use of comments effectively reduces the potential for harmful content and negative interactions because it removes an unmoderated and monitored forum for those activities,” Zelms wrote in the announcement.

Comment sections on city posts were typically not monitored by departments, city officials said, due to “staffing challenges” and a prioritization of resources to other city needs. Rochester Public Schools also no longer allows public comments on its posts.

Mayor Kim Norton, who has spoken previously about the negative interactions she has had online, also disabled comments on her pages on Wednesday. Users will now only be able to react (by emoji) to posts or reshare a post with comments to their own personal pages. Norton said she remains available by phone or email.

“I believe this change will support our efforts to provide information, and also to create a better, safer digital environment for all,” Norton said in a statement.

Within hours of the announcement, threads on other sites began filling up with questions about the legality of the new city policy, with some users suggesting it amounted to censorship.

But Dr. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the city is within its rights to discontinue public comments on its social media channels. Kirtley noted that while local governments cannot block comments based on one viewpoint or another, they are under no obligation to manage a public forum on social media.

“They can decide to discontinue the public forum if they choose,” Kirtley said. “If they do allow public comments, they can only impose reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner. These restrictions must be viewpoint neutral.”

On social media threads — ones not managed by the city — there were a few users who defended the government’s decision to restrict comments, noting that city threads are often cesspools of comments from people trolling and harassing public officials.

But overwhelmingly, users were critical of the move. One commenter wrote that while “the change may simplify some aspects of the city’s social media management … eliminating open dialogue among constituents on the platforms most people use to connect is certainly not going to improve community engagement or help build trust in local government.”

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Judge blocks MPCA from restricting hours at St. Paul iron foundry accused of pollution




A judge has blocked the state from limiting operating hours and imposing other restrictions intended to reduce air pollution from a St. Paul iron foundry.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered Northern Iron, LLC, to limit its daily operations to control airborne lead and particulate matter, which can damage the lungs and circulatory system when inhaled.

But in a ruling issued July 11, Ramsey County District Judge Leonardo Castro partially granted Northern Iron’s request for an injunction, preventing the state from enforcing limits on how much metal the company could melt in a day and what hours it could operate. Northern Iron says the agency’s demands would make the foundry go out of business.

The judge left intact other provisions of MPCA’s order, and ordered the business and the agency to work together on a new air permit and installing new pollution control equipment. MPCA has said the business’ own modeling shows it is releasing pollutants at thousands of times the level allowed by law.

Alex Lawton, CEO of foundry owner Lawton Standard, told the Star Tribune that after the ruling, he “felt relief for the folks who were laid off that who wanted to come back to work.” The company announced shortly after MPCA’s order that it would have to cut 15% of its workforce, but is now operating with its full staffing of about 80 employees.

MPCA said in an email sent out shortly after the ruling that it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.

“We stand ready to hold the company accountable should pollution emissions exceed [air quality] standards, to protect the health company employees and nearby residents,” agency spokesperson Andrea Cournoyer wrote in a statement.

Northern Iron opened at 867 N. Forest St. in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood in 1906. It molds made-to-order components that other companies use in finished products. Lawton Standard bought the business in 2022.

Sidney Pisano, vice chair of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, said the court decision has left the neighborhood feeling “disregarded.”

“It feels like we don’t matter, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of East Siders have felt for a long time,” she said.

The situation has played out differently than the regulation of another urban iron casting company. Smith Foundry spurred complaints of bad smells and air pollution for years from neighbors in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The EPA took the lead on an investigation there, after a surprise inspection last year, and got the foundry to agree to shut down its furnace and casting operations in a settlement. Some in the area were frustrated it took action by EPA, not MPCA, to address the issues.

In the Northern Iron case, MPCA has led the enforcement, including a $41,500 fine imposed on the foundry last year for changing its pollution controls without reporting it to the state. Lawton said the Smith Foundry case was hanging over the regulation of his own business, and suggested it had encouraged regulators to take a stronger hand.

“I think Smith and certain other factors like that seemed to be omnipresent,” he said.

Since the fine last year, MPCA and the foundry have been discussing how to reduce its emissions. After one round of modelling showed that the particulate matter and lead released were thousands of times higher than federal rules allow, Northern Iron then came up with new calculations to show how the emissions would change if they altered their hours or installed new equipment.

The particulate pollution would still be higher than allowed, and the calculations for lead “seemingly defy the conservation of mass and likely cause an underestimate of lead emissions at some sources,” according to MPCA’s administrative order.

The company contends that it’s not polluting, because monitors stationed around the foundry show the air doesn’t exceed state limits on contaminants. It is still planning to install two air filters and make other improvements at the building, a project that will cost around $2 million, Lawton said.

But Cournoyer said that the foundry’s current permit requires it to use modeling to show it is meeting air quality standards.

The foundry and the state agency will next be in court on Aug. 22, when MPCA will argue to dismiss the case. Northern Iron said it plans to submit a new air permit application by August.

“I feel glad the MPCA is keeping the pressure on,” Pisano said.

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Elderly MN woman allegedly coerced into giving TX man $100,000 in gold bars




A Minnesota woman was coerced into turning over $100,000 in gold bars and $36,000 in cash to a Texas man who swindled her, according to charges.

Mutahir Ahmed Khan, 23, from the Dallas suburb of McKinney, was arrested in Pennsylvania and appeared in Marshall County District Court after being charged with two counts of felony theft in connection with the swindling of a 67-year-old woman from Warren in northwestern Minnesota.

Khan remains jailed in lieu of $1.5 million bail and is due back in court on Tuesday. Messages were left with his attorney seeking a response to the allegations.

According to the charges and the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office:

On Feb. 22, a McKinney police officer told the Sheriff’s Office that a woman in Marshall County might be among the victims in a Texas fraud investigation.

That same day, the woman spoke with a sheriff’s deputy and said she sent a large amount of money to a man in Texas named “Mark Sabation” out of a concern because he had access to her Social Security number.

The woman said she slipped $100 bills into the pages of books, then on Aug. 22 sent the books holding $36,000 in all in two boxes to separate CVS pharmacies in Texas.

About a week later, the woman said, she followed orders and bought $100,000 worth of gold bars online. On Sept. 1, “Mark Sabation” called and told her to put the bars in a white car parked outside her home. She did as directed, saw the car leave but could not see who was driving. The Sheriff’s Office later determined that Khan was behind the wheel.

Pharmacy surveillance video captured Khan picking up the packages at the two locations. A search of his home by law enforcement turned up photos and other incriminating evidence.

Khan was tracked down and arrested on June 27 during a traffic stop in central Pennsylvania. He told police in McKinney that he was collecting the boxes, then taking them to a location he did not reveal in exchange for compensation. He declined to identify who received the boxes and that “he had been coerced into picking up these packages, although he was being compensated for his work.”

Khan said that the two packages from the woman in Warren were among roughly 40 packages that he handled in August and September.

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