Bully for state Rep. Alice Hausman. The head of the Minnesota House capital investment committee did Wednesday what leadership demanded: She called planners of the Central Corridor light-rail line and the University of Minnesota to public account for a dispute that should have been resolved long ago, and gave them a deadline for getting it done.
Construction is supposed to begin next summer on the proposed $941 million rail-transit line between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. But that schedule won't be met unless the U's objections about the line's potential to adversely affect research in adjacent buildings are addressed and resolved, and a lawsuit the university initiated is withdrawn.
Those things should be done by early December. If they aren't, the project likely won't be included in President Obama's 2010 capital budget. That would set it back at least a year, and perhaps longer. It means a comparable delay for every other rail project on the region's drawing board. All of them in some way hinge on the construction of the east-west Twin Cities transit spine that the Central Corridor will provide.
Just one year's delay for the project would add an estimated $35 million to $40 million to its cost. Add to that the cost of delaying every other proposed line on a system slated for full build-out by 2030, and the figure becomes large indeed. Peter Wagenius, senior aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, described the situation accurately Wednesday: "Being comfortable with delay and being in favor of this line are not compatible positions."
An exchange of letters (see excerpts above) last week indicated that talks between the university and the Metropolitan Council were not progressing well. Issues tangential to protecting research were belatedly coming to the fore.
Enter Hausman, the no-nonsense former teacher and 11-term St. Paul DFLer who heads the House panel that authorizes bonding for state building projects. She summoned leaders of both the Met Council, which is in charge of the project, and the university to explain themselves at a public forum. Around the table sat four other legislators and assorted representatives of the two cities and the two counties Central Corridor will connect.
She was told that several more weeks of staff work and private negotiations could lead to an agreement. Progress has been made in recent days, nudged along by two shuttling diplomats, Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Fine, Hausman said: We'll reconvene in public on Dec. 1 or 2, and either celebrate your achievement or ask some hard questions.
The two sides to this fight seem in need of Hausman's reminder that they are actually on the same side. "This is all about the public," she said. Both the university and the Met Council exist to serve Minnesota's public interest. Both should be able to trust the other to act in the state's best interest, should the planned measures to mitigate the rail line's disruption on campus prove to be inadequate.
That degree of trust has evidently been lacking to date between the university and the Met Council. But the two sides can trust this: The chair of the House bonding committee is closely watching their performances and will call out -- and remember -- anything short of good-faith negotiation. Hausman's deadline should be taken very seriously.