Like the children of Lake Wobegon, the University of Minnesota has never settled for being average. Ever since its founding in 1851, it has strived to be exceptional.
The pending arrival of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line across campus, however, gives us great concern about our ability to carry on our traditions of excellence, because those responsible for designing the line seem to feel that "average" should be good enough for the university, and for Minnesota.
The Central Corridor line is an important development for our community and for the university. Students, staff and faculty at the U constitute one of Metro Transit's largest user groups, and we strongly support a strengthened metropolitan area transit system that includes the line.
What gives us pause is the threat it poses to our critical research mission, unless appropriate measures are taken to protect our facilities and equipment from harmful vibrations and electromagnetic interference (EMI).
Much of our research takes place in labs located along and near Washington Ave., where the light rail trains will run. The 195-foot trains, each weighing 265,000 pounds, put at risk research programs in as many as 80 labs in 17 buildings -- some located only 30 feet away from the tracks.
Light rail construction and operation are far from "light" in terms of noise, vibration and EMI. While these phenomena exist and are accounted for in the current environment, the presence of a huge, multi-year construction site and the constant passage of massive trains each day present much bigger problems.
And they are problems the U and the Metropolitan Council, the agency responsible for the project, need to resolve before construction begins.
We have explained our concerns to the Metropolitan Council on many occasions, and in at least four official filings over the last 14 months. The lack of progress has been discouraging and worrisome, particularly because the stakes are so high.
The response from the project management thus far has been that the project will mitigate vibration and EMI to the present tolerance of the U's research equipment -- the "average" between current conditions and the outside tolerance levels of the equipment -- and that should be sufficient.
"Average" is not acceptable for the U, and certainly not in this situation. If the project proceeds and the proposed "average" mitigation does not meet our research needs, it will be too late.
Research in affected labs will have to be suspended, and in many cases funding -- and the world-class faculty it supports -- will be lost.
Proceeding before these issues are resolved would be a risky, unnecessary gamble that would place the public's enormous investment in the university in jeopardy.
This past year, U researchers were awarded nearly $700 million in competitive grants and contracts. Research currently taking place in our labs holds the promise of curing some of mankind's most serious illnesses and solving some of the world's most difficult problems.
Research at the U is also vitally important to the economy of the region and state. Our research grants directly support more than 22,000 jobs. Thousands of students, many of whom will work for Minnesota companies upon graduation, are trained in our research labs.
The good news is that we know that these sorts of challenges have been overcome elsewhere. The University of Washington in Seattle asked that light rail not harm its research work, requesting engineering that guarantees the rail will not increase vibration and EMI beyond the conditions existing before operation of the line, as well as the installation of monitoring systems to ensure that operation of the line remains within these standards.
These concerns were not only considered reasonable and legitimate by the Seattle rail project leadership, the project accepted the terms stipulated by the university, and agreed to provide all necessary mitigation to insure that the project "does no harm" to the current environmental conditions along the rail line's path through campus.
Garrison Keillor once said, "Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it." We at the U hope that the Metropolitan Council and the Central Corridor management will not follow that advice.
Tim Mulcahy is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota. Coming Tuesday: The Metropolitan Council's perspective on the issue.