This editorial is being written in an office about 30 feet from the light-rail tracks on S. 5th Street in downtown Minneapolis. In the months after the Hiawatha line started service, hearing trains roll past the Star Tribune headquarters several times an hour took a little getting used to. Now some of us refer to the bells, horns and rumbling as the sounds of progress.
From that perspective, it's tempting to quickly dismiss the objections raised by Minnesota Public Radio to the Central Corridor light-rail line, which will run past MPR on Cedar Street in downtown St. Paul. Since early December, MPR has been rallying its listeners and donors to join its fight to move the line off Cedar. In a statement posted on its website, MPR argues that noise and vibration from the trains will cause "irreparable harm'' to its facilities as well as to the nearby Central Presbyterian Church and the Church of St. Louis, King of France. (It's always good to have friends in high places in such battles.) To drive home the point, the statement mentions five times that the tracks will be just 12 feet from MPR's broadcast center, which houses 24 recording studios, concert halls, theaters and other sound-sensitive areas.
With or without background noise, MPR is a valuable community asset -- one that deserves excellent treatment from the Metropolitan Council and its light-rail planners. MPR has 800,000 listeners, 97,600 supporting members and 440 employees. Programming produced in St. Paul is heard by 16 million people nationwide each week. Its headquarters brings much-needed life to downtown St. Paul -- in fact, city taxpayers helped build it -- and its facilities are a state-of-the-art draw for world-class recording artists. It's clear why MPR President Bill Kling would go to great lengths to protect the institution.
But it's time for Kling and his counterpart at the Metropolitan Council, Chairman Peter Bell, to end the public sparring, sit down and rebuild a fractured relationship that threatens to delay or even derail the largest public works project in Minnesota history. And those talks should start with the understanding that moving the line off Cedar, which MPR has requested, is not a practical option given the lateness of MPR's objections, political considerations in Minnesota and the timetable for meeting Federal Transit Administration funding deadlines. Instead, Kling and Bell and their respective engineers should focus on mitigation.
Conflicting reports from engineers are at the heart of the dispute. Those working for the Metropolitan Council say using mitigation measures such as "floating'' slabs under the tracks, new soundproofing for studios and limits on the use of train horns could actually reduce noise and vibration from current levels. In other words, MPR could have quieter studios and offices after the line is up and running than it has today. MPR says its consulting engineers, however, remain concerned that no amount of mitigation would be effective.
Bell's frustration is understandable. For reasons that remain sketchy, MPR started its full-tilt PR attack on the Metropolitan Council late in the game. MPR wants a detailed mitigation plan, which Bell can't provide until he secures matching federal funds to pay for that work. And MPR chose to use its considerable broadcasting weight to raise the volume of protest when diplomacy might have been more effective.
In a statement released Thursday, MPR's board of trustees appeared to signal a willingness to rethink the demand that the line be moved and to work with the council on mitigation. Let's hope the statement is an olive branch. The Central Corridor project is vital to the future of public transit in the Twin Cities, and it's in the best interests of the Metropolitan Council, MPR and the community at large to find a way to get the trains running on time and on budget.