As light rail nears, concerns about Capitol grow

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2011 - 10:10 PM

Though the Met Council says the issue has been studied, the Central Corridor light-rail line has others concerned about an increasingly fragile State Capitol.

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Light-rail construction continues on Robert Street and University Avenue. Some people are concerned that the Capitol building won’t be able to withstand the vibrations from the light-rail line.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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At 106, the State Capitol is starting to show a bit of age. Scaffolding hugs the outside walls to protect against falling chunks, and inside, much of the plumbing is overdue for replacement.

Within a couple of years, the increasingly fragile architectural jewel will also have to contend with dozens of Central Corridor light-rail trains rumbling by daily within 50 feet of its historic steps.

What that might portend for the century-old structure is unclear, and a study that might have sorted it out was scrapped in the final hours of the legislative session.

An earlier state report in November had listed a litany of problems for the landmark, noting that it had several areas where "segments could likely separate from the building and fall to the ground."

"Some of the stones, if you just lightly pop them, just bump against them almost, they will come loose," said Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, who sits on the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. "That's part of why we're walking under scaffolding."

But in its waning hours last month, the Legislature ditched a proposal to have a new commission to study the impact of light-rail vibration on the historic site.

The move came after Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees the light-rail project, argued that such a study would be redundant and result in construction delays that could cost $150,000 a day.

State officials insist that the Capitol is in no imminent danger and that its problems are typical of aging structures.

But some legislators say that too few people are making the historic building a priority.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who wants additional study, said the patchwork of state agencies and boards that oversee the Capitol is so varied that essentially no one is in charge of the building.

So far, the vibration concerns have not led to a showdown like those that pitted the Central Corridor project against the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio. The university last summer reached an agreement with the Met Council to protect the school's research facilities from vibration and electromagnetic interference that might be caused by the 11-mile light-rail line, which will stretch from downtown St. Paul to Minneapolis. MPR's lawsuit against the project, which is also centered on vibration and noise issues, is still pending.

A 2010 vibration and noise remediation study for the Met Council, which surveyed dozens of buildings along the Central Corridor light-rail route, concluded that the Capitol would not be jeopardized by the project. Although state officials initially worried about the building's marble exterior, a preliminary report said, "they subsequently said that the problems had been fixed."

The preliminary report noted that while state officials said that "vibrations during an earlier project caused the chandeliers to sway ... we do not think that this poses a problem." The report added that there were "art glass elements that do merit further consideration."

The 2010 study instead identified three buildings along the route -- two churches and St. Agatha's Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts -- as needing closer monitoring for possible damage during construction.

The Capitol, meanwhile, was placed in the same category as Porky's, the iconic drive-in restaurant on University Avenue that has since closed. Those buildings would have a vibration limit during construction of 0.5 inches per second of peak particle velocity.

No protection plan

There is no "coordinated protection plan" for the Capitol, said Lanning, chairman of the House State Government Finance Committee. "There's just too many players -- [it's] easy when that happens for things to fall between the cracks." Responsibility for the Capitol is shared by several agencies, including the state Department of Administration and the state historical society.

Lanning said the Met Council seemed to be more "worried that we're going to derail the light-rail" project.

The day before legislators adjourned on May 23, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, and the state Department of Administration led the push to eliminate language for a study of the vibrations on the Capitol. Nelson said she was not acting on behalf of the Met Council and had never seen Haigh's letter.

"This would be redundant," Nelson told a House-Senate conference committee moments before the language was removed.

In her letter, Haigh said the commission's creation "may be an attempt to go back in time and potentially cause serious delay." Haigh said that beginning in 2008, a variety of state boards and agencies had already studied how to minimize light rail's impact on the Capitol.

A fraying building

But the November state report painted a picture of a fraying Capitol building.

Nearly all of its mechanical systems had already surpassed their useful life, according to the report, as had most plumbing systems and exterior windows. A six-page, single-spaced list of deficiencies included everything from guardrails that failed to meet building codes to ornately-detailed, vaulted plaster ceilings that need repair.

With $13.4 million from the Legislature in 2008, many immediate repairs have been made. Steel reinforcements were installed in the Capitol's middle dome, a ventilation system was put in the rotunda and the joints were repaired on the exterior stone.

A PowerPoint presentation put on by members of the Department of Administration, however, showed cracks in the exterior, gaps in the stonework and a general eroding of the Capitol's ornate exterior.

As the Legislature heads toward a likely special session, the fate of the new Capitol preservation commission -- like many other things -- remains in limbo. Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said she worries that too many commissions have come and gone without improving the plight of the Capitol.

"I was on the last committee that was going to solve all the problems," she said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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