Peter Bell: Met Council is trying to work with U

  • Article by: PETER BELL
  • Updated: July 30, 2009 - 10:06 AM

Light-rail mitigation is necessary -- within reason. (We're on a budget.)

As a University of Minnesota regent, I was a strong supporter of the university's research mission and its job-creating potential. And as chairman of the Metropolitan Council, I share the U's concerns about the impact that light-rail transit could have on important research.

However, the real question about the Central Corridor LRT project isn't: "Should we mitigate the adverse effects of LRT?" Rather, the question is: "How do we do so in a manner that is mindful of costs?"

The benefit of a billion-dollar LRT investment to the university will be significant. The Central Corridor project will remove more than 20,000 vehicles a day from Washington Avenue and transform that thoroughfare into a world-class transit/pedestrian mall. The U will have to build fewer parking garages, and faculty, staff and students will have access to first-class transportation worth millions of dollars a year.

The university's initial request of the Met Council was to provide mitigation for vibration and electromagnet impacts for all current and "future" lab equipment placed in buildings along Washington Avenue.

This would have required the council to cover costs into the indefinite future. A consultant for the university, at a recent meeting, wanted mitigation efforts to have a safety cushion of 50 percent beyond what is necessary -- with a potential cost of millions of dollars.

The reality is that there is a limited pool of dollars for the Central Corridor project. The university's demands on this budget exceed available funds and would provide more mitigation than is necessary. This would make fewer resources available for other important needs on the corridor.

The Met Council already has committed more than $11 million to redesign the Washington Avenue transit mall in a manner that accommodates the university's concerns, and the mitigation steps we have proposed would cost taxpayers another $7.3 million.

Our staff and consultants believe these measures will allow the U's research facilities to function as well in the future as they do today. In fact, in many locations the project will significantly improve research conditions along Washington Avenue by removing thousands of heavy trucks and reducing the number of buses that now rumble along that street every day.

In a recent guest commentary ("Sleepless in Minneapolis," July 27), University Vice President Tim Mulcahy used the University of Washington as a model for us to follow.

The LRT project there is significantly different in many important ways. That project requires the use of a tunnel-boring machine that will drill underneath sensitive labs, with trains eventually operating in the tubes. Construction will last for several years in an area of campus not previously affected by vibration sources like those that already exist on Washington Avenue.

Also, transit leaders in Seattle are having a very difficult time keeping the extraordinary commitments they made to their university.

Mulcahy also accused the Met Council of showing "indifference" to the university's concerns. This charge is incredible in light of the fact that the council has spent literally thousands of staff hours on this issue and has hired two internationally known consultants to help design mitigation strategy.

The university has been indifferent to our efforts and to the cost constraints under which we are operating.

Perhaps most frustrating was the fact that Mulcahy chaired a faculty group to assess the problems caused by LRT and develop conclusions for University President Robert Bruininks. This analysis took place without talking to the experts in our Central Corridor project office or to our consultants, instead relying on incomplete written information from their work.

Finally, there should be no mistaking the point that the Met Council is firmly committed to mitigating the problems caused by the Central Corridor project so that existing lab equipment will be fully functional after the line is open.

We ask the University of Minnesota to join us in working to develop a cost-effective mitigation strategy that will allow this vital transit improvement project to move forward on time and within our very real budget constraints.

Peter Bell is chairman of the Metropolitan Council, the lead agency for the Central Corridor light-rail project.

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