Robert Bruininks: Where the U stands firm on light rail

  • Article by: ROBERT H. BRUININKS
  • April 1, 2010 - 7:08 PM

The University of Minnesota strongly believes in the benefits of public transit in general and of the proposed Central Corridor light-rail project in particular. I mention this not because it's news -- in truth, we've said as much for years -- but because these and other facts have been obscured by the Metropolitan Council's latest PR blizzard. In the meantime, the university's honest efforts at reaching an agreement have gone almost unnoticed.

The Met Council wants to run trains -- 190-foot-long, 265,000-pound trains -- up and down Washington Avenue, right through the heart of the university, within a stone's throw of some of the most sensitive and important research projects anywhere. Research in the 21st century is more than beakers and Bunsen burners. Rail lines create noise, vibration and electromagnetic interference that may be imperceptible to the human senses, but are devastating to equipment that manipulates matter at the subatomic level. These are not merely theoretical or remote possibilities; even the Met Council agrees that the light-rail project as it currently stands will certainly harm the work done on and near Washington Avenue.

And that work matters. University of Minnesota researchers are exploring new cures for deadly diseases and new technologies that will improve the quality of children's lives (and our own) within feet of Washington Avenue. With little fanfare, Minnesota's largest public university has become one of the leading research centers in the world.

Even so (and surprisingly to some), we agree with the Met Council that light rail can be built along Washington Avenue safely and without detracting from our educational and research missions. Achieving this, however, is complex and difficult. It requires solutions that will work not just once, but each and every day that these trains will operate, for possibly the next century. Not surprisingly, it is here where we have so far failed to find agreement.

The lack of agreement is not for lack of trying. The university and the Met Council have met many, many times on these issues, and we have worked out most of the details of a plan to address the safety and environmental issues caused by the trains for a reasonable cost that is within the project's budget.

The biggest remaining issue is how to deal with the possibility -- however remote -- that the fixes we're putting in place won't work as anticipated. What then? We believe there has to be a strong incentive for the Met Council to avoid such problems and to fix them quickly, but the Met Council disagrees. The council also believes we should let it proceed with its construction activities without the protections of any agreement in place. In fact, it committed to construction contracts before it had an agreement regarding the land on which it wants to start building.

We disagree with that approach, which is why on five separate occasions since October 2009, we have sought mediation to resolve these differences and help reach an agreement. All five times, the Met Council has refused. Now, to force us to yield, the council has walked away from the bargaining table and picked up a microphone instead.

The Met Council's PR machine will, no doubt, continue to generate a lot of noise and smoke, but in the end it will produce little of lasting value. As much as we want light rail to progress and be built, we can't let that goal cause irreparable damage to our research and education missions. Hundreds of ongoing research projects, representing more than $650 million in annual economic activity and 25,000 jobs, are at risk. Our obligations in this area are so compelling, and the risks so substantial, that no amount of political bullying or coercive public relations will change our position on this point.

Robert H. Bruininks is president of the University of Minnesota.

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