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The University of Minnesota will set aside its long-held objections and support the running of light-rail trains on Washington Avenue, University President Robert Bruininks said Wednesday.
"The university does not want to be in the position of bringing this project to a grinding halt or jeopardizing its possible future," said Bruininks, who will urge the Board of Regents to approve the route in meetings today and Friday.
In an interview at Morrill Hall, he said the university's negotiations with other public agencies have resulted in "enormous progress" on concerns such as traffic, hospital access and the impact on sensitive research equipment -- and who might pay for solutions.
Planners of the 11-mile Central Corridor light-rail line have twice voted in support of running trains through the East Bank campus on Washington Avenue, but in recent months the school has been vocal in its preference for a northern alignment that would take trains through Dinkytown, and it paid for a study of such a route.
The study "had some encouraging findings," Bruininks said, but acknowledged that the northern route fell short of meeting current federal requirements on costs and ridership.
The university's change of heart will help the project meet a September deadline for applying for the federal money that's expected to pay for half the line, which would open in 2014.
In 2001, the Board of Regents approved a resolution stating its preference that the line follow the northern alignment or be placed in a tunnel under Washington Avenue.
The tunnel was deemed too costly earlier this year, and on May 28, the Central Corridor Management Committee and the Metropolitan Council eliminated the northern alignment from consideration.
"This isn't about being arrogant. It's not about being elitist," Bruininks said, indirectly addressing critics who have accused the university of trying to delay the $892 million line. "It's about being serious about the issues that have to do with how this campus and the surrounding communities really work."
A five-block stretch of Washington in the heart of campus would be closed to automobile traffic, and in doing so, "we can't create chaos elsewhere," Bruininks said. Granary Road, a new street that would roughly follow the northern alignment, as well as improvements to East River Road, must be part of any mitigation package, he said.
Bruininks said that he'll recommend that the regents fully support the at-grade alignment with the necessary mitigations -- and that even two weeks ago, he wasn't prepared to make such a recommendation. He expects the board to pass the resolution.
"It's a big change-of-course," he said. "... I think the northern alignment is a more creative option, but I have concluded with some reluctance that we simply can't get there."
Bruininks said he doesn't expect the university to bear the brunt of the mitigation expenses. Costs related to building a new transit line "should not come out of tuition or the academic budgets of the University of Minnesota," he said.
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491