Editorial: Rail planners, U need to compromise

  • Updated: July 26, 2009 - 9:09 AM

It should be possible to stay on schedule and protect research.

Designers of the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line have already met and overcome more than their share of resistance on their way toward next year's intended construction start. But they have yet to come to terms with a formidable force that urgently needs placating -- the University of Minnesota.

In the 14 months since the new rail line was officially routed through the heart of campus, on Washington Avenue, university leaders have been saying that it spelled trouble for the research housed in 17 buildings on or near that street. Noise would present minor difficulty, they said. The real problems would be vibration and electromagnetic interference with highly sensitive equipment, such as the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer in Hasselmo Hall.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of the project, responded by hiring consultants, running tests, creating models and proposing a mitigation plan that keeps all of the university's existing research equipment functional. Council chair Peter Bell has also said he's willing to pledge in writing that any future unforeseen problems would be corrected without cost to the university.

The university in turn hired its own consultants. A faculty panel did its own analysis. It reported to President Robert Bruininks last week: "The Metropolitan Council's proposed mitigation strategies for vibration and electromagnetic interference have not been shown to be effective under the unique circumstances associated with the proposed siting of the light rail line, that is, within 70 feet of highly sensitive research facilities."

The panel urged the university to hold out for a more costly mitigation plan that maintains vibration and electromagnetic interference levels at their ambient levels. The cost of those measures is not known, but is bound to be in excess of $10 million.

Bell countered that the project cannot afford "over-mitigation." That word had university officials girding for a fight last week. They were preparing to take their complaint about inadequacies in the Central Corridor's proposed environmental impact statement to the Federal Transit Administration, the expected source of half of the $914 million the project requires.

It should not have come to this, especially not so late in the game. By taking its fight to the feds, the university risks delaying construction of the linchpin of the 21st-century transit system planned for this region. A year's delay will add an estimated $35 million to Central Corridor's costs, postpone the economic stimulus of the largest public works project in state history and damage Minnesota's chances of landing federal support for future projects.

Delay is much to be avoided -- but so is damage to research that generates more than $100 million a year and holds forth the promise of a better life for Minnesotans. That research is crucial to Minnesota's future.

This is a situation that cries out for compromise -- not unlike the deal struck earlier this year between Central Corridor's planners and Minnesota Public Radio. High-level negotiations, perhaps mediated by one or more of this state's political leaders, are urgently needed. The talks will have to get past fairly deep mutual mistrust, some of it residual to last year's tiff over where to route the rail line through campus, and go to the heart of the matter. The right legal assurances and some degree of financial flexibility should make it possible to keep research whole and build this railroad on schedule. The public interest demands both.

  • THE DISPUTE

    "I'm absolutely committed to dealing with the university's legitimate concerns. I've said, we will mitigate so that they can use existing equipment in existing locations, and if that mitigation does not work, we'll come up with corrective action. ...They want us to mitigate against some future uses. That's an open checkbook."

    Peter Bell, Metropolitan Council chair.

    •••

    "We don't have room to compromise, and we won't compromise the research of the university. They have yet to prove to us that what they are proposing will work."

    Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for university services.

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