Of all the controversies facing the future Central Corridor light-rail line, a dispute with the University of Minnesota has received the most attention -- with good reason.
It's Minnesota's own Clash of the Titans. Both the university and the Metropolitan Council are powerful public institutions, and their struggles to see eye to eye have complicated the state's largest public works project.
Despite a rare truce reached between the two sides earlier this month, the U and the Met Council have spent two years locking horns in a high-profile battle over how to build the line, while safeguarding the university's sensitive research labs.
RESEARCH AT RISK?
Scientists like David Blank are at the heart of the debate. Blank, a chemistry professor at the U, reports to work by taking 55 stairs down to the sub-basement of Koltoff Hall on Washington Avenue.
Blank works with laser beams. His lab contains two giant tables littered with mirrors and prisms that steer the lasers in different directions. Blank and his team of researchers are watching how these pulses of light move, so they can help develop the next generation of solar cells.
The second in a four-part series examining the Central Corridor light rail project in St. Paul.
What's under the table is just as interesting. Its feet are cylinders the size of propane tanks, filled with compressed air.
Blank built his laser systems to rest on the air because light waves are vulnerable to even the smallest vibrations. That's also why his lab is located deep down in Kolthoff Hall.
The tables are designed to hold up against the constant ruckus from buses and trucks on busy Washington Avenue, which is 130 feet from his lab. But he doesn't know how the tables will manage the different vibrations from the proposed light-rail trains along the avenue.
Blank, who rides his bike to work and considers himself a fan of transit, worries what will happen if the Central Corridor line disrupts his research.
"Worst case scenario, we can't do our experiments in this room anymore," Blank said. "To be honest, I don't know what happens at that point. I'm nervous, I'm very nervous. This is my career."
But an initial agreement recently reached by the U and the Met Council could be a sign that the two sides are on their way to a full detente.
The two parties recently resolved an easement dispute and agreed to let preliminary roadwork begin this summer on campus. They also settled on a general framework of how to share the risks of steering trains through the heart of the U's delicate research corridor.
"It's a step forward," said Kathleen O'Brien, the U's vice president of university services.
O'Brien said the framework should help smooth over negotiations to keep the project on track. Still, it doesn't affect a lawsuit that the U filed against the Met Council last year in state court. And literally dozens of issues still need to be resolved before the two parties work out the final details on a much broader written agreement.
The two sides are back for more court-ordered mediation this week.
Still, the recent deal over the easement marked a noticeable thawing of relations between the U and the Met Council. In the weeks leading up to it, it didn't look like either side was going to back down. Relations had deteriorated to the point that two county commissioners felt compelled to act as shuttle diplomats to help broker a deal.
At public meetings, the Met Council accused the U of delaying the project and wasting project dollars. In letters to the editor, university officials accused the Met Council of bullying. And from the sidelines, state lawmakers and county commissioners publicly criticized the U for not giving up its easement.
A smaller fight over noise and vibrations has been brewing on the other end of the alignment, in downtown St. Paul.
Minnesota Public Radio has also sued the Met Council, asking the court to compel the project to employ a more sophisticated --- and more expensive -- technology to protect its sensitive recording and broadcast studios.
From the perspective of project planners, the U has made unreasonable requests with little concern toward keeping the project within its budget.
But O'Brien, the U vice president, said the issue with the Met Council isn't about money. It's about learning how to work together.
"From the get-go, the university was viewed as a problem, as opposed to an institution that had needs that needed to be resolved," she said.
O'Brien is referring to the U's concerns about the Central Corridor route, traffic and safety. She points out that the U's Board of Regents has been on record with its alignment preferences since 2001. The U favored a pricey tunnel beneath the campus, but said that if that were not possible, it would pursue an alternative route, a "Northern Alignment" farther north and away from research labs.
The university lost both fights. The tunnel and the northern alignment are off the table, and the university has agreed to support the current street-level alignment along Washington Avenue.
The U has hired former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to help it navigate the federal New Starts program, the competitive process through which the Central Corridor line is expected to receive federal funding.
Last year, the university spent $40,000 on lobbying on matters related to the Central Corridor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By its own estimates, the university has spent at least $500,000 on outside consulting over issues of vibration and electromagnetic interference, and $1 million in professional staff time.
U of M officials say they have a commitment to protecting the state's premier research institution. The campus labs earn about $650 million every year in contracts and grants. About 80 labs scattered across 19 buildings could be affected by the light-rail trains.
The labs are used not only by university faculty and students, but also BY private companies including Cargill, 3M and smaller firms who do their own experiments using the U's state-of-the-art instruments. The university is already planning to move some of the most sensitive labs from the train's route.
Still, the U's standoff with the Met Council puzzled everyone from transit supporters to state legislators, including State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who supports the Central Corridor. Pappas, who also chairs the Senate higher education budget division, said she's sympathetic to the U's concerns.
But she wonders something that everyone is asking: Why couldn't these two important public institutions work it out?
"It sounds a little bit to me like the Palestinians and the Israelis, but I'm not sure who's on what side," she said.
Pappas, who is critical of both sides, said the dispute may have to do with the personalities involved.
"The university does act often in an arrogant way," she said. "They know they're not coming across very well in this whole debate."
She thinks the Met Council, likewise, has some "strong personalities."
FRUSTRATIONS WITH THE ROUTE
Pappas thinks the recent friction surrounding the project is rooted in the U's longstanding frustrations with the light-rail route. She said the university should have done a better job of communicating its concerns about the route over the past decade.
"They had a position for the Northern Alignment that they passed, like years and years ago -- 2001 or something. And I had no idea," Pappas said. "So, I do think a problem for the university is their public relations and their communication with legislators."
“It sounds a little bit to me like the Palestinians and the Israelis, but I'm not sure who's on what side.”State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul
Many of the problems emerged once the U learned the project would not include a tunnel beneath campus, a feature that the project's environmental draft study of 2006 included. The U notes that the Met Council didn't officially rule out the tunnel until 2008, giving the university little time to work on the street-level alignment.
"It's their choice that has created this difficulty, not ours," said Mark Rotenberg, the U's general counsel.
But as early as 2001, Ramsey County officials, who led early planning efforts for the Central Corridor, told the U that the tunnel might not be feasible. And it was the U's own plans for a new on-campus Gophers football stadium that required an even more expensive tunnel which would have cost somewhere in the $250 million range, or roughly one-fourth of the project's entire cost, according to estimates from the Met Council.
But U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House transportation committee, finds some fault with the leadership of the Met Council. He said the council brought a negative attitude toward its negotiations with the university.
"A more benign administration ... would have brought the partners in and said, 'Let's explore all the options. You want a tunnel? Let's look at the tunnel. Which alignment do you want? How can we accommodate things?'" Oberstar said. "Instead of rigorously setting forth: 'This is what we're doing, and live with it, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.'"
Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council, disagrees with Oberstar's assessment. Bell said neither the tunnel nor the Northern Alignment -- both of which were studied extensively -- were realistic because of a rigid federal funding formula known as the cost-effectiveness index.
"The project simply was not going to get built with the tunnel because of the cost, or the Northern Alignment because of the over 3,000 fewer people who would ride the line every day," Bell said. "Those are facts."
Even the university's own study of the Northern Alignment showed that there weren't enough riders to justify doing it.
The cost-effectiveness index was a Bush administration-era benchmark that forced local projects to put a lid on spending. It took into account the number of riders and how long it would take them to get to their destinations. While cost effectiveness is still a factor, the Obama administration no longer views it as the defining rule.
THE SEATTLE EXAMPLE
Bell says the Central Corridor project is spending about $33 million to address some of the university's concerns. That includes an $11 million plan to take traffic off of Washington Avenue and transform the congested street into a transit and pedestrian mall.
He notes that transit agencies and universities in other cities have been able to work out their differences over concerns about research equipment. Bell points to one successful example in Seattle.
"The University of Washington was more reasonable than the University of Minnesota," Bell said.
But Bruce Gray, a spokesman for Seattle's Sound Transit, credits something else -- years and years of discussion.
"It sounds like we had a lot longer lead time to work things out with them than maybe you have over there," Gray said.
Seattle's transit agency spent about seven years negotiating with the University of Washington over the same issues of vibrations and electromagnetic interference, Gray said. In contrast, the U of M and Met Council have been in negotiations for about two years.
In Seattle, the transit agency agreed to pay the university $35 million for land, lost parking, easements and other costs related to the project. The U of M says it has not asked for any of those concessions.
"And today we have a very good working relationship," Gray said, referring to Sound Transit's ties with the University of Washington. "We're digging a huge hole in their football stadium parking lot for our station, and we're looking forward to running trains there in six years."
But the project linking downtown Seattle to the University of Washington is also a lot more expensive, with a pricetag of $1.8 billion for about three miles of track.
No one knows for sure what impact the University of Minnesota's lawsuit will have on the Central Corridor. Supporters of the line say so far, the fighting certainly hasn't helped.
The MPR lawsuit also is still in play, with no mediation scheduled.
Back in the laser lab at Kolthoff Hall, professor Blank hopes the U and the Met Council can reach an agreement soon. The bike-riding professor says he wants to see trains serve the university community.
"If there's a light-rail train, I will ride it," he said. "I'm a huge fan of mass transportation. I'm a huge fan of state-of-the-art research at the University of Minnesota."
And he thinks he should be able to do both.