MPR, churches oppose proposed LRT route

Central Presbyterian
Central Presbyterian Church, on Cedar, is neighbors with Minnesota Public Radio (on the right). Both organizations support the LRT project, but oppose the proposed route along Cedar Stree in St. Paul.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Minnesota Public Radio and two neighboring churches in downtown St. Paul are escalating their opposition to the proposed line.

MPR said noise and vibrations from the train, connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, could harm their ability to record and broadcast. The churches say those very same effects could rattle their aging buildings and disrupt their worship services.

In the latest salvo, MPR has asked the project planners to study alternative routes through downtown St. Paul.

MPR and the churches say they support light-rail, but not the proposed route along Cedar Street. The tracks would be laid about 14 feet from the front door of the broadcast center.

"As far as we know, this is the closest a light-rail line will run to federally designated noise- and vibration-sensitive facilities anywhere in the country," said Jeff Nelson, public-affairs director for MPR.

He said the company has hired an outside law firm and a public-relations specialist to handle its position on the Central Corridor project. And this week, MPR put up a Web page spelling out its concerns.

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The proposed Central Corridor Alignment route
This map shows the proposed Central Corridor Alignment route through downtown St. Paul and the proximity it would run to several audio/visual recording studios, performance spaces, sanctuaries and historical sites.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

Nelson said, despite the company's recent actions, litigation isn't imminent.

"We're not talking about a lawsuit right now," he said. "What we're talking about is making sure our problems, our issues related to the extreme proximity of the planned LRT line to our recording studios and to the historic churches to the north of us, are being addressed."

But it's clear MPR is talking about a possible lawsuit down the road, or at least its lawyers are.

In a 17-page letter to project planners, MPR's attorney wrote that the lingering issues could shut down the broadcasting facility, "leaving MPR no practical alternative but to sue."

Project planners have been working with MPR and the churches to come up with possible solutions, ranging from soundproofing the recording studios to installing rubber shock absorbers into the rail beds. Central Corridor staff say they'll develop a mitigation plan as soon as the project receives federal approval to enter final design.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said a study to look at a different route is, in his words, a "Herculean task," that could delay the project by two years. He says MPR's memo to the project office last week has already raised red flags with the Federal Transit Administration.

"They're of course concerned about this," Bell said. "The FTA, they have 10 communities fiercely competing for very scarce dollars. Essentially, they can take the position of, 'Well, you folks in the Twin Cities don't quite have your act together. You know what? We can fund a project in the Southwest or the Northeast.'"

Bell made a similar case when the University of Minnesota pushed for a different route through campus.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman argues that MPR knew the downtown route when it chose to embark on a $46 million expansion of its headquarters a few years ago.

"This has been an attempt to delay this project, to change what has been over 20 years of studying an alignment, and a consensus that has finally been built of where this light-rail line needs to come into the city of St. Paul," Coleman said. "And it is extremely frustrating ... to have someone come in at the last minute and threaten lawsuits and threaten disruption. Quite frankly, they're threatening the future of downtown St. Paul and the entire city."

MPR said it has consistently raised concerns about the route over the years, but no one has adequately addressed them. The company also contends that the studies resuliting in the decision to choose Cedar Street as the downtown alignment didn't sufficiently take into account concerns about noise and vibration.

MPR and the churches say another problem has been a lack of iron-clad assurances from the project planners. They said they grew more concerned as data became available over the past six months showing just how disruptive the noise and vibrations could be.

Rev. David Colby is the pastor of the historic Central Presbyterian Church, next door to MPR. And next door to him is the Church of St. Louis, King of France. Colby said the attitude of the project staff so far has been, "Trust us."

"Because we haven't received many assurances in writing in a way that satisfies our concerns, we're also aware we need to be more assertive in talking to Central Corridor staff, other stakeholders, elected officials, and the public about potential alternative alignments and routes," he said.

Colby said his fear is the project could receive final approval from the federal government next spring without providing any guarantees to remedy the issues on Cedar Street.

But Bell said he's not sure if the project office is even allowed to form a mitigation plan without getting FTA approval first.

"I have been told that if we were to do an extensive mitigation plan before we're in final design, the feds would not pay the 50 percent cost of developing that very expensive study," Bell said. "MPR's concerns are legitimate, but they need to understand the process a little bit better."

At a recent hearing hosted by project staff at Central Presbyterian, church member Virginia Ruffer and pastoral associate Maureen Smith told a project planner that any restricted access to the church would devastate an aging congregation that has been working hard to revive itself. "It's a very grim picture," said Ruffer, who has been attending the church for more than 40 years.

Smith said that they are afraid this is the death of their church.

"Our church has been coming back, and we have great optimism for our church, except for this," she said.

In the months to come, project planners will try to convince these, and other holdouts, that they can work out most of their concerns. Construction on the $915 million project could come as soon as 2010.