U of M Regents prepared to support light-rail plan

Tunnel town?
University of Minnesota officials appear prepared to support the Central Corridor plan that would bring the train down Washington Avenue. Initially, they favored a tunnel under Washington Avenue or the so-called northern alignment that would route the light rail line on the north edge of campus close to Dinkytown.
MPR photo/Dan Olson

After months of resistance, university officials are now supporting a plan that runs the light rail line through the heart of the Twin Cities campus.

University President Robert Bruininks says his change of heart hinged mainly on two issues, not the least of which was the fact that the two alternatives the university endorsed were too expensive or had lower ridership projections.

"I know a fact is a four-letter word, but they do matter, and you have to respect evidence when you see it," Bruininks said. "Secondly, I was very encouraged by the tone and level and depth of discussion we had with Hennepin, Ramsey County, the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council about what it would take to make the at-grade solution work."

The university opposed the street level rail line down Washington Avenue, preferring instead either a tunnel under the street or a different route north of the campus.

The Met Council, the agency that oversees the project, already approved the at-grade option two weeks ago over the university's objections. But the university's lone opposition potentially placed federal funding in jeopardy.

"I'm not uncomfortable with conflict and holding my ground, if I think it's for the right cause, but when you get solutions that will really work you need to shift your position and move in a new direction," Bruininks said.

An outline of those solutions are included in a letter of agreement with the university, Hennepin County, Minneapolis and the Met Council.

Among other things it sets aside $34 million to address the university's concerns about vibrations and electrical interference that could cause problems for sensitive research facilities near the proposed route.

The parties will need a second agreement to deal with design, operations, the length of the line through campus and specific direction about everyone's responsibilities.

One remaining question is the funding of three street improvements, referred to as 'betterments,' to improve traffic once cars are no longer allowed on Washington Avenue. The cost estimate exceeds $50 million with no source currently identified.

The lack of specifics concerned several board members, including Dean Johnson who felt the $34 million to fix problems would be inadequate.

"I think that's woefully low. I think the number is probably $80 million, $100 million. In a year or two, members of the board, Madam Chair, we will be sitting in this same boardroom, scratching our head, asking the president how we are going to come up with the mitigation funds," Johnson said.

The regents heard qualified assurances of cooperation from representatives of each of the other major players, all of whom will be competing with the university for mitigation funds from the same pool of money.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said he can't guarantee the university would not have to cover some of those extra costs. But, Bell said, there are other sources of funds that have not yet been tapped.

"Do I think the university will be left holding the bag? No. Is that my intention? No. Do I think there are other funding sources that will be able to handle some of the "betterments"? I would argue yes," Bell said.

The university's shift is good news for the other stakeholders who had already signed on to the project as proposed.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough says the university's green light is key to showing the Federal Transit Authority the project is worth pursuing.

"This was extremely important, because the FTA has been a little concerned. As we are all aware of where the university is as its significance as a partner in this," McDonough said.

If all goes as planned, the university and the other jurisdictions could come up with a second, more detailed agreement as early as September although it could come months later than that.

The opening of the Central Corridor line is projected for some time in 2014.

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