Score one for the…

Robin Huiras

Score one for the Minnesota Department of Transportation: The federal government recently dropped $17 million on Minneapolis for light rail transit.
The money — earmarked for planning and design of the greater Twin Cities’ first LRT system –represents little more than 3 percent of the project’s estimated $446 million final price tag. With the latest allocation, light rail planners have already mustered almost $70 million in state and federal funding.
While city officials are giddy over the prospect of a spanking new light rail system, about 100 people are still actively protesting the development of what they say is sacred land.
Estimated for completion in 2003, construction on the line connecting downtown Minneapolis, the University, the airport and the Mall of America will not begin until spring 2000. Before construction can begin, crews must complete the expansion and reroute of Hiawatha Avenue/Highway 55.
When completed, light rail will service University commuters; a station near the Metrodome will connect passengers to the campus via the bus system.
“We need to recognize we are not going to be able to build our way out of parking problems and traffic congestion,” said Bob Baker, director of Parking and Transportation. “Nobody knows if it will be a total solution, but this is certainly an excellent opportunity to test light rail as an alternative.”
The rerouting phase of the project involves building over state- and federal-owned land which has been occupied by environmental activists for the past three months. Claiming the land is sacred, the protesters aim to dissuade MnDOT by substantiating tribal land claims.
The Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota tribe has been given status as a non-profit entity, but is not officially recognized by the federal government as a nation. The tribe aims to save a grouping of oak trees they say were used for ancient ceremonies and a natural spring called Camp Coldwater.
Light rail will not affect the water flowing into the spring, and will actually improve access to area, said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
The four oak trees in question, according to the Dakota, have been used for centuries as death scaffolds. Core samples taken from trees of similar stature in the area by both city officials and archeologists for the environmentalists evidenced conflicting ages of the trees. The city estimates the trees are no more than 130 years old; the environmentalists’ figures peg the trees at 170 years old.
If the city’s figure is correct, the trees would not have been able to support the bodies of the deceased Dakota in preparation for burial.
Additionally, a letter written by a member of the Indian Affairs Council states, “no substantial evidence exists that the proposed Highway 55 rerouting would directly impact any such site … the rerouting does not impact this spring.”
But the groups, including the Dakota people, Earth First!, the American Indian Movement and Stop the Reroute maintain that they will not move from the land — land they claim the federal government promised them in a treaty signed in 1851.
Earth First! representative Bob Greenberg said the groups are trying to mobilize political support. Pushing to get elected officials to withhold funding on the transitway, the activists hope to buy time to substantiate their land claims into court.
“They have had ample time to deal with their claims,” said Bob Mcfarland, public affairs director for MnDOT. “Where were their claims when the process was beginning 30 years ago?”
Construction on Hiawatha Avenue south of 53rd Street will begin this spring; the Dakota have until then to pursue their claims in court, Mcfarland added. Spiritual elders are currently submitting affidavits for their legal claims. Greenberg also said American Indian leaders as well as officials in Washington possess original copies of the treaties.
McLaughlin hopes the protesters’ efforts won’t disrupt the influx of more than $226 million in federal dollars needed to fund the project.
“To get bogged down in a dispute settled in the 1980s is to squander the opportunity to get LRT in Minneapolis,” McLaughlin said.