Volume rises as U, Met Council debate Central Corridor route

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2008 - 7:53 PM

The U wants more consideration of a route through Dinkytown; the council says the delay would threaten funding.

For months, planners of the Central Corridor light-rail line have said that they've been "trying to get to yes" on a route through the University of Minnesota campus.

Today, the U is expected to say "no" to the plan to put trains on Washington Avenue -- but lose a crucial vote to forces aligned against the U's preferred route through Dinkytown.

The Metropolitan Council and the U have failed to bridge their considerable gap in recent weeks, disagreeing on everything from the amount of engineering that's been done on the northern alignment to the timetable required to garner federal funding for the $892 million project.

They're not even in agreement on the need for today's resolution, which was tabled last week in order to give the U more time and will be considered early this afternoon by a panel that includes city, county and state officials. The full Met Council is scheduled to vote later in the day.

"There is no practical, legal or regulatory reason to hold such a vote," University President Bob Bruininks wrote to Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council, in a letter dated Friday. "To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the Federal Transit Administration will ask the Metropolitan Council to adjust its current timeline," which calls for an application to be submitted to the federal government this September.

Bell, however, maintains the timeline must be followed if the 11-mile line is to open in 2014, and he's frustrated by the university's position insisting on a northern alignment, especially in light of the compromises made on the St. Paul end of the project, where the line was shortened and neighborhoods aren't getting all the stations they wanted.

The U's opposition "has the potential to kill" the project, Bell said.

"They don't have a dime in this. ... The U is playing with everyone else's resources," he said. He was referring not only to construction costs -- estimated to rise $45 million a year for each year of delay -- but also operating costs, which he said would be $2 million more per year if the northern alignment were built.

While the U might not be paying to build or operate the line, it has been funding its own studies of the northern alignment and could incur expenses not covered by the project, such as moving sensitive laboratory equipment away from the line.

Bruininks says that federal officials who hold the purse strings are more flexible about the timeline than Bell has indicated, and that further study of the two routes is warranted.

"Schedule alterations are commonplace in large transit projects, and we have absolutely no indication from FTA or any other federal authority suggesting that the analysis we recommend will in any way jeopardize federal funding for the [Central Corridor] project," wrote Bruininks, who was out of state and unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The university has hired Rodney Slater, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, "to help us understand the federal process," Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for university services, said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the FTA wouldn't comment Tuesday on what would happen to the Central Corridor if its application wasn't submitted in September. "I'm not going to talk about deadlines," said Paul Griffo, the agency's senior public affairs officer.

The vanishing tunnel

The Met Council, which would operate the line, and the university also don't see eye to eye on how they got to this point.

Earlier plans for crossing the East Bank campus included a tunnel stretching under Washington Avenue SE., which would have allowed vehicular traffic to remain on the street. The current at-grade plan converts Washington into a bus-train-pedestrian transit mall, with cars diverted to other streets.

O'Brien said Tuesday that the tunnel was still a possibility as late as February of this year. That was when revised "cost-effectiveness" numbers showed that the tunnel's $200 million cost would make the line too expensive to win federal approval, even though the university had become "very heavily involved to bring the cost of the tunnel down," she said.

But Bell says that, as early as June 2006, he was warning that the tunnel would be too costly. "I know of no one outside of the university that ever thought the tunnel was a viable option," he said.

Bell expects to keep the project moving forward after today's vote, and Bruininks' letter indicates the U's willingness to continue to work on efforts to mitigate the effects that the at-grade alignment will have on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

"We'll have time to bring them along," Bell said.

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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