The University of Minnesota and planners of the Central Corridor light-rail line struck have struck a tentative deal that will allow the project to inch forward.
Officials on both sides said they've agreed on a set of principles that they believe will help smooth over intense negotiations that have been going on for nearly two years.
That means the largest stumbling block in the way of a billion-dollar project connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis may soon come to pass -- and keep the project on time and on budget, supporters say. The university has been concerned that the trains would interfere with sensitive research equipment along Washington Avenue, which is part of the 11-mile route.
But the agreement is not a complete accord. Many issues remain between the university and the Metropolitan Council, and elsewhere along the line.
The university's main and most immediate concession is a temporary easement that the Met Council needed to begin preliminary road work on campus this spring.
After a university Board of Regents meeting in which the board agreed to sign off on the easement, University Vice President Kathleen O'Brien told reporters there is still a lot of work to be done.
"But certainly, coming up with this framework -- and just the work we did together, the sometimes tense and sometimes cooperative exchange -- really set us the stage for us moving forward with other elements of the agreement," O'Brien said.
According to university officials, the parties have agreed to standards for the design, engineering, construction and operation of the line, including remedies in situations where the interference from the trains exceed expectations. The two sides have also come to terms on a construction management plan.
Officials have agreed on how the Met Council will protect the university's research labs, and what would happen if the trains disrupt the facilities. The university has backed off its earlier request seeking liquidated damages, and the Met Council said it would pay for any harm the trains cause to the university's research labs, O'Brien said.
"The Met Council agreed to the principle, 'If we break it, we'd fix it,'" she said.
Furthermore, the Met Council said it would help the university seek $12.5 million in state bonding money that would go toward relocating the most sensitive research labs located along the light-rail route, she said.
University officials had refused to grant the easement until enough progress had been made on the overall negotiations. A hearing at the state Capitol scheduled for this morning may have lit a fire beneath them: State lawmakers were considering giving the Met Council power to condemn the university's property. But the hearing was canceled after lawmaker learned of last night's breakthrough.
The agreement was reached late yesterday as part of court-ordered mediation between the U and the Metropolitan Council.
Met Council Chairman Peter Bell said in a statement: "We believe the mitigation plan we have agreed upon will provide that protection in a financially responsible matter, while allowing us to move forward with this vital transit improvement."
University President Robert Bruininks said: "We have long been one of the most transit-oriented communities in the Midwest and this new light rail line will enhance the accessibility of our campus for students, faculty, staff and visitors."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was among the first to break the news, on his weekly radio show this morning. "Their mediation made good progress, and we had some discussions last night that I think will allow it to move forward, at least on the initial phase of it," Pawlenty said. "So that's good."
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the breakthrough was great news. McLaughlin said he did not know the details of the agreement, but he said it makes him optimistic that a long-running standoff between the U and the Met Council is on its way to being resolved.
"The implication of this is they have made significant progress toward resolving all of the fundamental issues," McLaughlin said. "Whether they have all the I's dotted and the T's crossed, I do not know. I suspect they don't."
Steve Dornfeld, a Met Council spokesman, said additional issues do remain, and mediation is scheduled to resume April 26.
Dornfeld said of the lingering issues with the U: "There's a long list of them ... literally dozens." Dornfeld said the mediator, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Lebedoff, will probably help the two parties work through all of them.
But Dornfeld said the Met Council and the U made enough progress on the main sticking points to give university officials enough confidence to act on the issue of the temporary easement. Dornfeld said the Met Council will work with the low bidder to get the work underway as close as possible to May 3, the original start date for the campus traffic improvements.
The project still faces two additional lawsuits. One is filed by Minnesota Public Radio. The radio network says the Met Council is contractually obligated to use a specific kind of technology along the tracks to reduce disruption to its broadcast and recording studios in downtown St. Paul.
The other lawsuit is filed by a group of African-American community members in St. Paul, who are concerned about gentrification and reduced bus service along University Avenue.
When asked if the Met Council might be able to reach a deal on those two fronts now that the U talks have made progress, Dornfeld said: "I think we're going to take a deep breath here and see what problems remain."
Dornfeld says the Met Council still thinks the MPR lawsuit is without merit, and that the Rondo community group is making unreasonable demands.
Heavy construction on the $957 million light-rail line is scheduled to begin in August.