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Central Corridor / U given a week to chew on rail route


So what happened at yesterday's marathon session?

As usual the Pioneer Press is on the case:

They didn't want to shove it down the U's throat.

So Central Corridor backers dropped their preferred light-rail route in the University of Minnesota's mouth Wednesday, and, at the indirect urging of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, gave them a week to swallow it on their own.

The weeklong accommodation by a key advisory panel was intended to avoid a showdown and was the culmination of what amounted to a show trial that took four hours to unfold Wednesday afternoon.

At issue is the university's lingering support for a different route through campus as the planned light-rail line runs between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, generally along University Avenue.

Except for the U, all relevant local officials — staff and elected representatives from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Ramsey and Hennepin counties and the Pawlenty-appointed Metropolitan Council — support trains rolling along Washington Avenue.

The university's lobbying in Washington over the past month troubled rail officials because it drew attention — not in a good way — from federal officials whose support is needed to recommend half the funding of the roughly $900 million construction.

This week, a university consultant completed a months-long study of the Dinkytown detour. It concluded that the route would cost less but attract roughly 6,000 fewer riders, thus making it fail a key benchmark the federal government uses to grade projects. When the study's results did not prompt university officials to relent, other officials got on the phone Tuesday, calling on political and business leaders to mount pressure on the U.

Meanwhile, U President Robert Bruininks called Pawlenty on Tuesday night, "very concerned about what was going to happen at the meeting," said Met Council Chairman Peter Bell, a Pawlenty appointee. Pawlenty Chief of Staff Matt Kramer called Bell and requested the weeklong reprieve, Bell said.

It began with Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, urging everyone to "respectfully" end their "differences." Kelliher and other lawmakers last weekend collaborated with Pawlenty to work out a deal to ensure a crucial $70 million in state funding for the project.

Then Central Corridor project director Mark Fuhrmann testified, explaining that engineers had figured out solutions to several lingering questions along the Washington Avenue route, including $35 million in improvements to address the traffic tangles created by prohibiting cars on Washington Avenue.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter noted that extra funds directed at the U amounted to further concessions from their side of the river to please the school. A Minneapolis city engineer briefly took the stand to state that every city and county engineer and planner involved with the project agreed with Fuhrmann.

Next, university officials, led by Vice President Kathleen O'Brien, made their case for the Dinkytown route, arguing that it dovetailed better into future campus expansion, which would likely occur to the north.

Then Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, whose district includes the university, introduced a pre-vetted resolution calling on the panel to adopt the Washington Avenue route and end any further discussion or study of the Dinkytown detour. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak seconded it. Everyone except O'Brien said they supported it, including Bob McFarlin, Pawlenty's assistant transportation commissioner.

Then Bell told the story of Bruininks' call to Pawlenty and the request from the governor's office. Bell said the extra week was "in deference to the university."

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