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Light Rail and the U, A Modest Proposal

Both the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press have editorials in the Sunday paper today about the latest news on the proposed light rail line.

From the Strib:

Editorial: Rail planners, U need to compromise

It should be possible to stay on schedule and protect research.

In the 14 months since the new rail line was officially routed through the heart of campus, on Washington Avenue, university leaders have been saying that it spelled trouble for the research housed in 17 buildings on or near that street. Noise would present minor difficulty, they said. The real problems would be vibration and electromagnetic interference with highly sensitive equipment, such as the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer in Hasselmo Hall.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of the project, responded by hiring consultants, running tests, creating models and proposing a mitigation plan that keeps all of the university's existing research equipment functional. Council chair Peter Bell has also said he's willing to pledge in writing that any future unforeseen problems would be corrected without cost to the university.

The university in turn hired its own consultants. A faculty panel did its own analysis. It reported to President Robert Bruininks last week: "The Metropolitan Council's proposed mitigation strategies for vibration and electromagnetic interference have not been shown to be effective under the unique circumstances associated with the proposed siting of the light rail line, that is, within 70 feet of highly sensitive research facilities."

The panel urged the university to hold out for a more costly mitigation plan
that maintains vibration and electromagnetic interference levels at their ambient levels. The cost of those measures is not known, but is bound to be in excess of $10 million.

Bell countered that the project cannot afford "over-mitigation."
That word had university officials girding for a fight last week. They were preparing to take their complaint about inadequacies in the Central Corridor's proposed environmental impact statement to the Federal Transit Administration, the expected source of half of the $914 million the project requires.

It should not have come to this, especially not so late in the game.
By taking its fight to the feds, the university risks delaying construction of the linchpin of the 21st-century transit system planned for this region. A year's delay will add an estimated $35 million to Central Corridor's costs, postpone the economic stimulus of the largest public works project in state history and damage Minnesota's chances of landing federal support for future projects.

Delay is much to be avoided -- but so is damage to research that generates more than $100 million a year and holds forth the promise of a better life for Minnesotans. That research is crucial to Minnesota's future.

This is a situation that cries out for compromise
-- not unlike the deal struck earlier this year between Central Corridor's planners and Minnesota Public Radio. High-level negotiations, perhaps mediated by one or more of this state's political leaders, are urgently needed. The talks will have to get past fairly deep mutual mistrust, some of it residual to last year's tiff over where to route the rail line through campus, and go to the heart of the matter. The right legal assurances and some degree of financial flexibility should make it possible to keep research whole and build this railroad on schedule. The public interest demands both.

And from the Pioneer Press:

Light rail hits yet another bump at the U

We stand for the propositions that the Central Corridor light-rail transit project from St. Paul to Minneapolis is a great opportunity for our region and that it will also open a grand new gateway to the University of Minnesota.

So the rumbles of vibration problems and electromagnetic freakouts that we are feeling along Washington Avenue near the U appear to us as an opportunity rather than a barrier. The Central Corridor ride is going to get bumpy before it smooths out and this is another of the bumps that wise officials must chip away at.

It is a major change in our geography and landscape and there is an understandable freakout factor all along the line. The university freaked out because the line will run through the heart of the Twin Cities campus.

The Metropolitan Council, which will build and run the line, proposed an attractive, car-free transit mall on Washington Avenue. While the U has never been wild about the idea -- never as wild as we think they should be -- the Board of Regents did agree to pursue the mall routing. The Met Council agreed to address concerns that vibrations and electromagnetic mojo from the trains could mess up nearby laboratory equipment.

That understanding is now a cause of dispute.

A statement from Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research at the U, said "our concerns have not been adequately addressed.'' He added, "We can't accept a solution for mass transit that puts at risk one of the fundamental elements of our mission."

Peter Bell, the Met Council chairman, said the council will guarantee enough vibe-damping equipment so existing technology at U research labs will function as it does now. "We are committed to addressing both the vibrations and the electromagnetic interference issue so that existing equipment can be used, after the line goes in, as it was used before the line was put in,'' he said. "We are willing to guarantee that, and to take corrective action afterward if that is not the case.''

He said he feels the university wanted the Met Council to pay for an extra margin of safety. "Every dime we spend on mitigation at the U is a dime I can't spend on University Avenue, addressing some of the legitimate issues there,'' he said.

Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for University Services, said the U and Central Corridor planners have worked on the problem for more than a year but have not yet agreed on an acceptable solution. "The University's position is to do no harm," she said, and that may mean lower limits on interference than the Met Council is proposing.

She added that it may be necessary for elected officials to help resolve the issue. "We don't want to go to combat,'' she said.

The university is right to stand up for its interests. These are tough technical issues that affect important, high-level research. No one wants a successful train at the cost of a diminished research capacity for a great university.

But the Met Council is taking the concerns seriously, is devoting considerable resources to addressing them, and is willing to fix problems that arise after the train is running. As with concerns expressed about the train by Minnesota Public Radio and University Avenue residents, the solution to the U's problem need not jeopardize the greater good of the entire line.

This is a major improvement for the U, paid for out of the train project budget, that will be a great benefit for the university community and those of us who know how hard it is to drive a vehicle to a lecture or a concert or a game.

The Washington Avenue mall is the place where the proverbial "golden spike" will be driven in the rail bed, making the entire circuit possible. Let's get our heads together and turn the rumbling of the train into good vibes for all.

A modest proposal

The U has reported, elsewhere, that they are seeking funding from NIH to move the NMR lab to the currently unused Mayo Garage. Presumably this location would take care of problems due to the light rail?

If funding does not come through, could the U please get a hard number for the cost of moving the NMR lab to one of the new biomedical research buildings?

Perhaps then the Met Council might be willing to include this cost as mitigation?

To ask the Met Council to provide an open checkbook, makes it appear that the U has still not gotten over their unhappiness with the route and is willing to stop the project by making unreasonable financial demands.

( Please note the word appear. )

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