Letters illustrate rising tensions over Central Corridor project

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An exchange of letters this week between top officials at the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council illustrate an increasingly testy relationship between the two institutions as they work to resolve their differences over the proposed Central Corridor transit project.

The U and planners of the $941 million light-rail line, along with key elected officials, are hoping to reach a mitigation plan for the campus by the end of the month.

At issue are a number of requests from the U, including its desire to be reimbursed for about $2 million in costs that the U has spent on analyzing the project's effects on its campus.

In Wednesday's letter to U of M Vice President Kathleen O'Brien, Met Council Chairman Peter Bell noted that the U decided on its own to "hire a number of consultants and legal experts to analyze the mitigation strategy that the Met Council was developing, including one of the most expensive law firms in Washington D.C."

In an interview, however, O'Brien said the university is not asking for reimbursement for legal fees, but rather for professional staff time and consulting fees.

"Literally, dozens of university people have been working hours on this project," she said. "We have had to expend these funds because it has been necessary to protect the research of the university and the operation of the campus, because we have not had the guarantee of the project that we would receive that."

The U sued the Met Council in September, saying the project had not properly addressed the university's concerns over vibrations and electromagnetic interference from the transit service. The U says it must protect its role as a research university and fears some of its laboratories could be harmed by trains rolling down Washington Avenue if not resolved.

But Bell says the project planners will answer the U's concerns, which they consider legitimate, in the final phase of design.

The Met Council wants to settle the dispute by the end of November to improve the project's chances of winning critical approval from the Federal Transit Administration to enter final design. Bell said it needs to secure the approval in order for the project to remain on schedule, with major construction planned for next summer. Delaying the project by one year could add up to $40 million to the project's price tag, he said.

Bell said it's also important to wrap up negotiations soon to increase the project's chances of being included in President Obama's budget.

O'Brien said she's confident that the transit line will be built, and she remains open-minded about reaching an accord with the Met Council by the end of the month.

"I believe it's an aggressive timeline, but it would be possible," she said.

But in his letter to O'Brien, Bell seemed to express a lack of faith in the recent talks: "I am not sure further negotiations with the University on the legitimate concerns regarding vibration and EMI (electromagnetic interference) are possible unless and until the University abandons its requests."

In an interview, Bell clarified that he does believe the negotiations will continue. He said he wanted to "signal to [the university] how seriously I take these discussions and the need to wrap them up quickly."

The U is also seeking:

- a "fare-free zone" for light-rail riders within the U campus;

- reimbursement for lost parking revenue as a result of the Central Corridor project;

- and that the Met Council to provide liability insurance covering the U campus.

No one is willing to say that the Central Corridor is in trouble. But project supporters and elected officials have expressed frustration over the pace of the negotiations and with the university's requests.

"The U continues to say they support transit, they support the Central Corridor," Bell said in the interview. "But as my mother used to say to me, 'Actions are much stronger than words.'"