Residents accuse MnDOT of falsifying documents about light-rail transit

Travis Reed

A Minneapolis couple has accused the Minnesota Department of Transportation of falsifying federal documents and mishandling records taken at meetings for the Minneapolis Light Rail Transit project.
In a recent letter to the Federal Transit Administration, John and Laura Reinhardt allege MnDOT intentionally excluded community concerns from the public record during a 1993 meeting to hide damaging information and push the light-rail project onward.
“They threw out all the public comments (from the meeting),” John Reinhardt said. “It seems that everything on the hearing was defrauded, and nobody’s taking responsibility.”
The light-rail project had been underway for more than five years by the time the Reinhardts got involved.
One of the project’s first major steps in 1985 involved the city issuing an environmental impact statement on light rail in the Hiawatha corridor, a thoroughfare that runs through the Reinhardts’ neighborhood.
The couple’s letter to the FTA stemmed from a 1993 meeting held to bring community members and MnDOT officials together to discuss light-rail issues at the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Street.
Attendees questioned and criticized the plans, but only a fraction of the complaints appeared on public records. The couple claims this suggests either MnDOT or city employees tampered with the transcript.
The meeting was important to MnDOT because its transcripts were sent as part of a package to the Federal Highway Administration, a final step toward determining whether further environmental studies would be needed.
Some say that if FTA requested another study, it would have severely hampered the future of the light-rail project.
“If they would’ve put all these comments on the record … another environmental impact statement would have been needed,” John Reinhardt said. “Another (statement) would determine that people don’t really want a light rail going through their backyard.”
At the meeting in question, attendees were asked to express opinions at an open forum and on written comment cards to be reviewed by MnDOT. But the records sent to the FTA in 1993 don’t include the cards or written records of the forum.
MnDOT officials said some comment cards were not included because the department had lost them.
All told, only eight comments were delivered to the FTA — six were from state and regional agencies.

MnDOT’s line of defense
MnDOT officials deny that they intentionally manipulated the record but were evasive and contradictory in defending their position.
In interviews this week, three different MnDOT representatives conveyed different defenses for the department.
Spokesman Kent Barnard initially denied that the meeting referred to in Reinhardts’ complaint had anything to do with the light-rail project. Barnard said that, at the time, MnDOT “wasn’t even looking at light rail.”
But Barnard later recanted when he was presented with a MnDOT announcement clearly identifying the light-rail project as the 1993 meeting’s focus.
When asked about the misplaced comment cards, Barnard said all the information on the cards was organized and sent to the FTA.
But Evan Green, a MnDOT project manager, said the information was not included in the report. He later said that even if the comments were included in the record, the 1985 environmental impact study would have still been accurate and the fate of the light rail would have gone unchanged.
“The concerns were captured in the overall process of the study,” Green said. “There was ample opportunity for people to comment at any time in the process.”

Forgotten concerns?
The FTA received Reinhardts’ letter in October and said officials are reviewing the material and intend to make a decision on the allegations in the coming months.
Copies of the FTA letter were also sent to several state-elected officials, including Gov. Jesse Ventura, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., Rod Grams, R-Minn., and Kathy Thurber, Reinhardts’ city council representative.
To date, only Thurber has personally responded to their concerns.
Thurber said she thought preparations for light-rail transit have been thorough, but said the Reinhardts’ concerns should not be overlooked.
“They’ve always been active and contributed in the neighborhood,” she said. “If there are serious problems with the record, that needs to be addressed.”

Travis Reed covers environment and transportation issues and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at 627-4070 x3235.