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Key US Agency Gives OK to Central Corridor Light Rail Line

From the Strib:

The Central Corridor light-rail project remains on track, despite unresolved issues with the University of Minnesota.

A key federal agency has given the green light for the 11-mile Central Corridor light-rail route between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, despite a last-minute appeal from University of Minnesota to slow the process. The Federal Transit Administration determined that the $928 million project satisfies environmental and transportation requirements, clearing the way for it to proceed to a final design phase.

"It's a significant milestone in our attempt to secure federal funding for the Central Corridor," said Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council. "For the past four months, this is what the project's focus has been. It feels very good."

The council is the lead agency for planning, designing and constructing the line, and for receiving local, state and federal funds to pay for it.

The federal approval, called a record of decision, does not guarantee federal funding, but is an essential hurdle that needed to be crossed to keep the project alive and on track. Eventually, federal funds will pay for about half of the project if its final design is approved in about a year.

The route would link the downtowns and State Capitol complex via Washington and University Avenues, and the tracks would go straight through the heart of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, near several buildings with super-sensitive laboratory equipment.

University general counsel Mark Rotenberg wrote to federal officials Tuesday, requesting that they delay issuing the final record of decision until the U and the Met Council "reach a comprehensive written agreement that mitigates the project's adverse environmental effects and preserves the public's enormous investment in the University's research corridor on Washington Avenue."

The university and the Metropolitan Council have been discussing vibrations, electromagnetic interference and other impacts from the light rail trains for the past several months. Officials met as recently as Monday, according to the letter, but have not reached a formal resolution on how to mitigate the impacts. The university's Board of Regents will not contribute land for the corridor's use until the issues are resolved, the letter said.

Rotenberg was on vacation and unavailable to comment on Wednesday's federal decision to move ahead with the project, according to an assistant.

Bell said that he was disappointed by the U's last-minute appeal, because any slowdown would have delayed construction for a year, costing an additional $30 to $40 million. "I plan to work with the U on resolving their legitimate issues" as the project proceeds, Bell said.

The next step will be for the Met Council to present its final design for the project to federal officials in October. It is anticipated that review and approval will likely take nearly a year. Bell said that the council also will file requests that would allow some construction to begin on the line in 2010, even before federal grants are awarded later in the year. The line would include 15 new stations, would link with the Hiawatha light-rail line and the Northstar commuter rail line in downtown Minneapolis, and would open in 2014.

It is interesting that Counsel Rotenberg is able to take vacation in the midst of all this excitement. Presumably his response to Senatory Grassley on another matter is under control, since he had to ask for a delay in order to complete the task.

Meanwhile, in reading the record of decision, it is not clear that the university has a lot of room to maneuver although the implied threat of not releasing the necessary land for the project would make for an interesting confrontation not likely to endear the university to politicians or citizens. But they have made that mistake often in the past.

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