Negotiations continue on U of M light-rail deal

Washington Avenue rendering
An artist's rendering of the proposed Central Corridor line passing through the University of Minnesota campus.
Courtesy of Met Council

The University of Minnesota and planners of the Central Corridor light-rail line are under the gun to work out their differences.

A month ago, the university sued the Metropolitan Council over the nearly billion-dollar transit service that would link St. Paul to Minneapolis. The U of M says the trains would disrupt its sensitive research facilities, some located as near as 30 feet from the proposed tracks.

All the key parties say the Federal Transit Administration has signaled they need to reach a resolution. The Met Council is counting on the FTA to allow the project to advance to the final round of planning by early December.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said when he met with FTA officials in Washington D.C. earlier this month, they made it clear that they're taking the U of M's lawsuit seriously.

"The message we're getting from the FTA -- both the university and us -- is 'get this resolved here, because we don't want this to play out in the courts,'" McDonough said.

McDonough, who chairs the county's rail authority, said the U and project planners are scrambling to close a tentative deal next month.

Staff and consultants on both sides are in daily discussions, and McDonough and other key officials have been meeting with a university vice president every other week.

"The message we're getting from the FTA is 'get this resolved here, because we don't want this to play out in the courts."

The goal of these 11th-hour negotiations is daunting: The group must come to terms with just how much the train's vibrations and electromagnetic fields would harm the U's research labs -- and what steps the project must take to lessen those disruptions.

Met Council chairman Peter Bell said the U has legitimate concerns, and the negotiations are making progress. But Bell said if they can't strike a deal soon, it could jeopardize the project's chances of receiving permission to enter what's known as final design. He said that could ultimately delay the project by a year, adding tens of millions of dollars to the final cost.

"I think Mayor [Chris] Coleman and all of our project partners -- Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Minneapolis -- are all somewhat frustrated that the U hasn't moved quicker and been more concerned about addressing their needs in a cost-effective way," Bell said.

McDonough said the discussions have been productive, but "at a pace that's pretty discouraging," he said. "We still have a long way to go."

Bell said the Met Council is willing to spend more than $27 million on alleviating the U's concerns. That includes a plan to turn a congested stretch of Washington Avenue into a pedestrian and transit mall that he said will be the envy of every campus in the nation.

Bell also noted that the project is dealing with a finite pot of cash.

"Every dime we spend at the U is a dime we cannot spend along University Avenue, dealing with the parking issues, business mitigation issues, and the like," he said.

Minnesota Public Radio had once asked the Met Council to move the light rail route away from its building because of concerns over noise and vibration. MPR and the Met Council reached an agreement in April that allows trains to pass by MPR's broadcast facilities. The main assurance for MPR is a plan to build a roughly $1 million "floating slab" as the foundation for the train tracks to isolate trains' vibrations.

The Central Corridor project has also faced complaints from local business leaders. A coalition of Asian-American business owners along University Avenue in St. Paul filed a federal civil-rights complaint last week, saying the project disproportionately harms minority businesses. The complaint, filed with the Federal Transit Administration, is similar to one submitted in June by a group of African-American community and housing groups.

The Met Council has said it is taking several steps to lessen the impact of construction on businesses and residents and has hired a multilingual team of outreach coordinators to work with businesses.

The Met Council and the FTA have also heard from a group that is pushing for three additional light-rail stops. The FTA has said those stops might have to wait until after the project is up and running in 2014, but the Stops for Us Coalition will likely keep pushing its cause.

But university vice president Kathleen O'Brien said the U and its partners are working at lightning speed to untangle the technical issues that other campuses have taken years to resolve.

"I understand people's desires to move it forward today," O'Brien said. "There are dozens of professional people working really hard to try to solve these problems, but you can't just make it up. It has to be science-based, and we have to know the solutions really work."

The groups have made headway on the vibration issue. Project planners have warmed to the idea of building a so-called "floating slab" along portions of Washington Avenue. It's the same technology that will address Minnesota Public Radio's concerns over vibrations near its downtown St. Paul broadcast center. The concrete slab essentially isolates the vibrations generated by the trains.

But how to reduce the electromagnetic interference, or EMI, could be a sticking point. The Met Council's strategy is to run a large copper coil along Washington Avenue to absorb the EMI. The U is waiting for its consultants to figure out if that solution would work.

The U's Kathleen O'Brien worries about the impact on one building where researchers toil away studying AIDS and Alzheimer's.

O'Brien didn't have a direct response when asked whether the U's concerns could harm the light-rail project.

"Do I think it could jeopardize the project? I think the Central Corridor will be built," she said. "In my role as vice president of the University of Minnesota, it's to protect ... the public's research university. This is an important project. These laboratories are critical as well."

With so much at stake, O'Brien said the negotiations can't be rushed.

The FTA wouldn't comment on whether the lawsuit could delay the project, but the agency has signed off on the project's lengthy environmental review. In its lawsuit, the university argued the review did not adequately address the transit service's adverse impacts on the institution.

Preliminary construction of the line in downtown St. Paul has already begun and crews could start major construction as early as late summer, with trains rolling by 2014.

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