Adam Platt: When it comes to LRT: It's not all about U

  • Article by: ADAM PLATT
  • Updated: November 18, 2009 - 5:07 PM

University needs to compromise before it kills Central Corridor project.

Does the University of Minnesota really want to stop Central Corridor light rail or is it simply cracking under the pressure of running a high-cost institution in lean times? The news that the university's lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council is days from causing a year's delay and tens of millions of dollars of additional cost should give local taxpayers and commuters pause. The university's positions on all topics Central Corridor have been more parochial than even the U's most ardent critics could imagine.

First the U did not want LRT through the heart of campus on Washington Avenue, preferring an alignment on an existing freight corridor north of Dinkytown. It threatened a lawsuit over this issue until it became clear that would permanently scuttle the line by ending any chance it had for federal funding.

Now the issue is the theoretical concern that LRT will create so much vibration in the U's research laboratories that they will be rendered useless. (This is the same argument Minnesota Public Radio made when it threatened to sue last year over equally theoretical concerns about noise/vibration damage to MPR's taxpayer-subsidized broadcast studios.) The Met Council has offered remedies, but they have not satisfied the U. There is no way to know which case is right. But does it make sense to spend millions of dollars before the risk is clear?

Both the U and the Met Council are wards of the state. Without taxpayer dollars they cannot achieve their missions or even function. Both are struggling with shrinking public funding. The current squabble is like a brother suing a sister, when either way mom and dad fund the settlement. No one wins but the lawyers and consultants.

And as the hours ticked away this fall, the U upped its ante, asking for even more public largesse -- free LRT rides on campus and compensation for lost parking revenues. That begs basic questions regarding the university's motives and perspective. Such negotiations should not be the venue for standard adversarial tactics of piling on one demand after another to get more of what you really want.

Major transportation initiatives are messy and disruptive. People are inconvenienced, small businesses are often devastated. The businesses along University Avenue must be envious of the university's clout and swagger.

Vice President for University Services Kathleen O'Brien told this newspaper she wasn't sure the U could even get to a memorandum of understanding with the Council by Dec. 1, the drop-dead date for next year's federal matching dollars. Clearly the university likes to be in charge.

Most Minnesotans are ardent supporters of the U and its mission. We support it even in times of financial privation. All we ask of the university is that it fix its gaze beyond its confines now and then, and recognize it is part of a larger universe, is funded by taxpayers, and is obliged to recognize broader interests as well as its own. This community has decided that Central Corridor LRT is needed, beneficial, and should go forward.

Here's a compromise: In the many months that the new line is being tested before service begins, an independent third party should gauge the impact, if any, on the U's research labs. If further remediation is necessary, the line's opening can be delayed while it is put in place. Dollars will be found for the purpose. They always are when it comes to the university and its core functions. But to spend scarce, zero-sum-game dollars without certitude of their necessity is nonsensical.

In exchange for such a deal, I'd ask for two things from the U. First, that it withdraw its Central Corridor lawsuit and guarantee it will file no others for the duration.

Second, that Vice President O'Brien write on the blackboard 500 times, "It's the taxpayers' money."

Adam Platt is an editor at Mpls.St.Paul magazine.

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