U, Met Council reach LRT truce

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 16, 2010 - 9:12 PM

University got guarantees on protecting research labs so construction can start to make way for the Central Corridor.

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An image of the kind of stations that will be built at the newly added stations at Victoria, Hamline Avenue and Western Avenue.

Work on the Central Corridor light-rail line will stay on schedule, thanks to an agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council.

The sides reached a tentative deal on measures to protect U research labs and, in turn, the U's Board of Regents on Friday granted the Met Council a temporary easement to begin road work soon on streets around Washington Avenue on the East Bank campus.

While both sides hailed the actions as a significant step forward, they also stressed that there's more work to be done before a broad accord is reached. Negotiators had been in court-ordered mediation since Tuesday and reached the tentative agreement late Thursday night.

"The negotiations have been very challenging," said Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for university services. "I believe this is good news."

The Minnesota Legislature had a hearing slated for Friday morning to give the Met Council condemnation rights on the U property. That meeting was canceled because negotiations had progressed.

Under the deal, the Met Council also will join the U in seeking $12.5 million in state bonding authority to help relocate certain research labs from buildings along Washington. The U will contribute another $12.5 million to the relocation efforts. It's likely an existing U building, farther away from the line, will be remodeled for the labs.

U President Robert Bruininks said Gov. Tim Pawlenty told him he would probably sign a second bonding bill with that request. Pawlenty called the accord good news on his Friday morning WCCO Radio show.

The Met Council is leading the $957 million light-rail project that will connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The 11-mile line is expected to begin operating in 2014.

Although the project hasn't gotten a guarantee that the federal government will pay half the cost, preliminary construction has moved ahead.

Road work on campus is important to give traffic a place to go once Washington is ripped up.

But the U had held back on granting the easement until it got a guarantee on how the Met Council would protect sensitive labs from road construction in the area.

The Met Council cried foul, saying the U would cost taxpayers at least $1 million, the amount the bid came in under estimates, and delay the project.

The U has maintained all along, though, that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sensitive research equipment, labs and work need to be protected.

About 80 labs in 19 buildings could be affected. "We do very important work for the state of Minnesota," said Bruininks. That, he added, gives the U an "absolute obligation" to look out for the research labs.

Exactly what that protection would be, and who pays what if damage were to happen, has been the subject of months of negotiations. The U sued the Met Council over the issues.

The Met Council and other Central Corridor project partners have accused the U of holding up the project and risking millions more tax dollars in delays.

The tiff has been public in recent weeks, but now appears to have subsided as both sides made compromises.

Details of the deal

In the tentative agreement, both sides agreed to use science-based standards for the design, engineering, construction and operation of the line. Along with that are scenarios for how to handle problems that arise and any costs if damage from light rail occurs.

In addition, the Met Council would implement a construction management plan to protect research facilities during the summer road work and use that plan to guide the heavy work when it begins.

"The Metropolitan Council has always recognized the need to protect the university's research enterprise," said Met Council Chairman Peter Bell. "We believe the mitigation plan we have agreed upon will provide that protection in a financially responsible manner, while allowing us to move forward with this vital transit improvement."

Others involved also praised the deal. "Every step forward is a positive step," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "We're happy that progress is being made."

Mediation is scheduled to resume on April 26.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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