With money at risk, pressure builds for Central Corridor deal

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2009 - 11:43 PM

As federal deadlines loom, the U and Met Council hope to reach consensus by month's end.

Rep. Alice Hausman used to be a teacher, and Wednesday morning, it showed.

Two of the state's noisiest kids -- the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council -- have been escalating their dispute over how the Central Corridor light-rail line will affect the Minneapolis campus, exchanging pointed letters last week as federal deadlines for the project loom. So Hausman sat them down together in a St. Paul conference room for an informal conversation with the rest of the class, which included legislators and local elected officials from both ends of the line, and nudged them to aim for a consensus by the end of the month.

The main sticking point is how rail cars rolling down Washington Avenue would affect sensitive equipment in the U's laboratories, some of which are only several yards from where the tracks are to be laid. The university and the Met Council, which is building the $941 million line, have made some progress on the issues of vibration and electromagnetic interference, but in September the U filed suit to keep its legal options open.

Jim McDonough, the Ramsey County commissioner who heads up that county's rail authority, said Wednesday that the federal government has made it clear that the line won't be approved unless the lawsuit goes away. Federal money would pay for half the line's cost, but if the project does not enter final design and get in President Obama's budget in December, the Central Corridor could miss out on a construction season, and its price tag could rise by tens of millions of dollars.

Hausman, a St. Paul DFLer, said she convened Wednesday's meeting out of concern for statewide rail plans, which include high-speed trains out of St. Paul and new passenger services within Minnesota. The Central Corridor "is the link that is necessary to make it all work," she said.

"There was a deadline looming with the federal government, and it looked like we again weren't going to have our act together," she said.

Kathleen O'Brien, a U vice president, and Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council, sat side by side, though not shoulder to shoulder, while Hausman proposed that the two parties hammer out a "memorandum of understanding" that would address the concerns in the lawsuit -- and allow the university to drop it -- by Dec. 1.

O'Brien wasn't sure the university could commit to that date, but she said a document with the right ingredients would allow the suit to be withdrawn.

Bell pledged his cooperation and thought an agreement could be reached in time, though he said it was "troublesome" that the university had not shown enough concern for "the exceedingly tight budget that we have. ... This is a zero-sum game." He also said he was "quite upset" that the university last week mentioned matters, such as a free-fare zone on campus and reimbursement of millions of dollars for legal fees and lost parking revenue, that the Met Council no longer considered on the table.

Negotiations continue today. The 11-mile line is scheduled to begin service in 2014.

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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