U of M sues over Central Corridor concerns

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Hiawatha train
A light rail train, moving through downtown Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

The Central Corridor light rail proposal faces a new hurdle. The University of Minnesota filed suit against the Metropolitan Council today over the project.

The U says noise, vibration and electromagnetic interference from operation of the the St. Paul-to-Minneapolis transit service as it runs through the university campus will harm research there.

U of M President Robert Bruininks says the suit was filed because the U and Met Council, in his view, are not far enough along in solving what U officials say are problems the light rail line would create.

"Despite months and months of meetings and lots of documents we filed, the Met Council has not come up with a plan that really addresses the serious concerns the university has, with respect to routing of the LRT down Washington Ave.," said Bruininks.

The Central Corridor Washington Ave. route would take the trains through the U's East Bank campus. Some 17 buildings on either side, some as close as 30 feet to the proposed line, house laboratories conducting sensitive research projects.

"This is an avenue with very intense research activity on both sides of the street, containing 80 of the university's most sensitive laboratories," said Bruininks. "Those laboratories are highly sensitive to vibration, electromagnetic interference and other things that would be created by the train."

Bruininks says the U regrets filing the suit, and says the administration supports the Central Corridor light rail project. He says the lawsuit does not end talks between the U and Met Council light rail planners.

Central Corridor
A map of the proposed Central Corridor light rail line, which would run along University Ave. between Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.
Map courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

Bruininks says the timing of the suit is mandated in part by a deadline requiring the U to pursue legal action, or lose the option.

Bruininks calls bogus the claim made by Met Council officials in the past, that any delay of the Central Corridor project because of this and other disputes will add millions of dollars to the $941 million pricetag.

Bruininks says the U has looked at other rail projects around the country, and has found other institutions which have raised similar concerns arrived at agreements.

"The University of Washington and Sound Transit actually worked for years on their plan, came up with a very satisfactory plan that addresses these complex issues at a very comparable university to the University of Minnesota," said Bruininks. "I think we can do it as well, but people are going to have make the investment. We're not going to accept a plan that compromises our long-term interests."

Those interests, the U's lawsuit asserts, include hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants that might go to other institutions if the light rail trains impair U research facilities.

"We're not going to accept a plan that compromises our long-term interests."

In a statement released Tuesday, Met Council chairman Peter Bell said the U's suit is without merit.

"We had, I believe made great progress in addressing really many of the legitimate concerns that the U has regarding vibration and what's known as EMI, electromaginet interefence and a number of other issues, we are committed to continue to work with them and hopefully will be able to do so in a way that doesn't jeopardize the time line," Bell said.

Bell also addressed the university's concerns about Central Corridor in a recent commentary published on the MPR NewsQ Web site.

In it, Bell said the Met Council has negotiated with U of M officials for nearly a year to address the university's concerns.

"We have developed and committed to implementing a plan that will effectively mitigate the noise, vibration and electromagnetic impacts of LRT on sensitive university research equipment located along Washington Ave. in Minneapolis," Bell said.

Rather than harm the university, Bell said the project will bring enormous benefits to campus.

"Our plan will remove more than 20,000 vehicles a day from Washington Ave. and create a transit/pedestrian mall that will be the envy of campuses across the nation," he said.

Bell said the Met Council already has committed more than $27 million to mitigate LRT impacts at the university, including $11 million for the Washington Ave. transit/pedestrian mall and $7.3 million to address vibration and electromagnetic issues.

Bell said he believes those measures will allow the U's current research equipment to function as well in the future as it does today.

The U's lawsuit comes as the Federal Transit Administration has approved the Central Corridor environmental impact statement, and given what amounts to provisional approval to begin some construction.

The FTA is expected to grant approval to enter final engineering by this fall, and sign a contract next year committing the federal government to paying half the cost.

Heavy construction is set to begin late next summer and the first trains might be running by 2014.

It's not clear how the U's lawsuit affects the FTA's view of the project and all those deadlines.