Minnesota Public Radio on Thursday sued the Metropolitan Council over a planned light-rail transit project that would send trains rolling past the radio station's front doors in downtown St. Paul.
The lawsuit is the third to be filed against the Central Corridor project, an 11-mile route that would connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Planners call the $941 million project the largest public works project in Minnesota history.
MPR contends the Met Council is reneging on an April 2009 agreement, in which the transit agency consented to a number of measures to reduce noise and vibrations from the trains. But MPR and the Met Council are at odds over how to accomplish those measures.
MPR: Agreement was violated
The heart of the disupte involves a "floating slab track" that would be installed in front of the MPR broadcast facility to reduce vibrations. MPR prefers that system be built with steel springs, but the Met Council wants to move forward with a less costly rubber pad underlay.
According to MPR's lawsuit, the steel-spring system has proven to be effective in Basel, Switzerland, where a light rail train has been built beside a recording center. The lawsuit claims the Met Council has failed to show that a rubber pad design would lessen the vibrations to an appropriate level.
"The Met Council agreed to standards that light rail needs to meet in order to protect our broadcast and recording facilities," said Nick Kereakos, MPR's managing director of broadcast product and operations. "Our experience over the last eight months has convinced us that those standards aren't being met and won't be met. We're asking the court to hold the Met Council responsible for the promises it's made."
The Met Council responded by saying its plan to use rubber pads would fully comply with the April 2009 agreement.
In a background paper, the council said rubber-supported floating slabs have a "proven history of meeting transit noise and vibration mitigation, with at least 50 examples of successful, in-place installations."
The Met Council also said the rubber pad system would cost 30 percent less -- a difference of up to $1.5 million -- than the steel spring system favored by MPR. (MPR puts the cost difference at about $650,000.)
Met Council: No obligation to use steel springs
The council also points to language in the April 2009 mitigation agreement that lays out a goal of achieving the required performance at the lowest overall cost.
In an interview, Met Council Chairman Peter Bell said the public-radio station is presumptuous to think it can design the track bed.
"I think MPR does an excellent job in news and classical music," he said. "Engineering light-rail systems is not their area of expertise."
He said the Met Council is not obligated to use the design preferred by MPR. In fact, the April agreement says the Met Council will "consider, as one alternative," the slab that floats on springs. Bell said such language is far short of a commitment.
"The [memorandum of understanding] is crystal clear that we are not required to use that," Bell said.
He said he hopes to get a court hearing before a judge as soon as possible to defend the Met Council's plans. He said of MPR's lawsuit: "I think their prospects in court are low, but we will fight this vigorously."
Bell also said MPR's desire to control the track design could set a precedent that would ultimately undermine the project. "We can't have every interested party along the line co-engineering the project. That just would not work," he said.
In transportation projects involving lawsuits, a judge could impose a temporary restraining order to halt or prevent construction. But in the case of Central Corridor, major work won't begin until this summer at the earliest. MPR says it's hopeful that the issue will be resolved long before the construction start, and says it's open to mediation.
Member dollars paying for lawsuit
Company officials say MPR member dollars, and taxpayer money received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are helping pay for the lawsuit because they are part of MPR's general fund.
MPR officials acknowledge that they run the risk of appearing as if they're trying to block the light-rail project. The radio station is getting ready to launch a member drive next week.
"We are concerned that it might be perceived that we are being obstructionist about the light rail project, and that's not the case," said MPR Executive Vice President Tom Kigin. "The Met Council made a commitment to build a light-rail line in front of our building...that would meet certain criteria. And the proposal they've made doesn't meet those criteria."
In addition to the MPR lawsuit, the University of Minnesota and a community group representing St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood have also filed suit over the Central Corridor project.
Federal momentum for Central Corridor
Consultant Bill Knowles of Salt Lake City has worked on business mitigation for light-rail projects across the country. The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce asked Knowles to give his take on the Central Corridor project a few years ago. He calls himself an advocate of light rail, but he said there's an art form to building support for the project.
He says when a major player like the University of Minnesota files a lawsuit, it suggests that the cities have lost an incredible opportunity to sell its citizens on light-rail.
"I'm just totally amazed," he said. "When it gets to that point, when a university has to sue, it really speaks to lousy communication, doesn't it?"
But the Met Council's Bell says lawsuits are an inevitable part of massive transportation projects. And Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, this week said as much in a conference call with reporters. Rogoff said the FTA will push the Central Corridor project forward.
"We do not just throw up our hands and walk away from projects in the face of lawsuits," said Rogoff. "Frankly, if we turned tail on every project where the agency was sued, we wouldn't be building very much."
Train service along the Central Corridor could begin as early as 2014.