Monday, April 28, 2008

U's pressure for its light-rail plan alarms partners

Renewed push for Dinkytown route
may jeopardize project,

planners fear

From the Pioneer Planet:

The University of Minnesota is not on board the Central Corridor. Still.

Top university officials have lobbied members of Congress, stated their case in community forums and submitted a 23-page memo to federal officials, accusing project planners of railroading the route, and suggesting the Metropolitan Council's aggressive timeline could violate federal laws.

The re-emergence of the conflict — thought by many to have been resolved this winter — has raised hackles of county and city officials on both sides of the river, as well inside the Met Council, the lead agency in the effort to build the $909.1 million, 11-mile line linking St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The dispute's effect on the federal government — which will be asked to pay half the cost — is unclear. But an official familiar with the federal transit funding process said, "This is a competitive process with projects around the country. The more everyone's singing off the same page, the more it moves it ahead of other projects."

In interviews with the Pioneer Press, U officials said they support the project and have no intention of causing delays. But how they've stated their position is what worries others involved.

"It's problematic," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, the county's point person on the Central Corridor, who had thought everyone had reached consensus, albeit a fragile one. "I knew it was very fragile, but there's fragile and there's attempting to make the cracks bigger."

Kathleen O'Brien, the university's point person on the Central Corridor, said the U's position hasn't changed since 2001.

In 2001, the Board of Regents passed a resolution stating it wanted a tunnel under Washington Avenue. If not that, a route along the northern edge of campus, through Dinkytown. If not that, a ground-level route along Washington — but only if someone could figure out how to fix the resulting traffic nightmares and how to pay for those fixes.

The Met Council briefly looked at the Dinkytown route but discarded it out of concerns it would be too expensive. The tunnel was in. Then, the U decided to build a Gophers football stadium on the tunnel's route, forcing a rerouting of the already pricey tunnel and adding more than $100 million to its price tag. The tunnel was out; Washington Avenue at street level was in.

On Feb. 26, the eve of a key vote, O'Brien issued a 10-sentence statement in which she neither supported nor opposed the Washington Avenue plan. The next day, a key advisory panel, including O'Brien and the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, unanimously approved that plan, with a footnote that if a U-sponsored study of the Dinkytown route proved that route was better, officials could revisit it. O'Brien voted "yes, with reservations." Applause erupted in the Met Council chambers in downtown St. Paul.

Then, on March 24, university General Counsel Mark Rotenberg sent a 23-page memorandum to the Federal Transit Administration, the federal agency that would fund the project.

"The University has not modified its opposition to an at-grade Washington Avenue alignment," states the letter, which cites U.S. law and numerous court cases. The memo, obtained by the Pioneer Press, amounts to a point-by-point allegation that the U's wishes have been unfairly — and perhaps illegally — unheeded since 2001. When asked last week if the university intended to take legal action to block the project, Rotenberg responded, "We're not threatening any litigation in this document. We want the Met Council to do its job right."

"I was disappointed," Met Council Chair Peter Bell said. Bell, a former U regent, said the memo's stern tone surprised him. While he said the university has "many legitimate concerns," he added, "many of the items that they listed were without substance."

The full weight of the U's position wasn't widely understood April 7, when Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed $70 million in state funding for the Central Corridor, citing, among other things, concerns surrounding the route through the university.

Two days later, the U released preliminary findings of its consultant's report on the Dinkytown route. The findings suggested that route would be cheaper and faster than one along Washington Avenue. The preliminary findings do not yet project ridership levels or how that route would measure up to a complex federal funding formula. Two days after that, the Board of Regents publicly "re-affirmed" its support of its 2001 resolution.

On April 15, O'Brien flew to Washington to join U President Robert Bruininks, who was there for a conference. The pair met with members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, including Rep. Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House transportation committee; senior staffers for Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman; and Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, according to people present.

"President Bruininks was just kind of touching base after Governor Pawlenty's veto," McCollum said.

Word of the visit concerned local officials, whose sights had been focused on the governor's office.

Where does the U stand now?

On Friday, when the Pioneer Press asked O'Brien whether the U supports the current plan — yes or no — she responded, "We're trying to get to yes."

Money aside, Bell and Met Council staffers, as well as McLaughlin, McDonough and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, believe the Washington Avenue route, which removes all but some bus traffic from the street, just makes more sense for the campus. The U disagrees, arguing the surrounding traffic snarls will do more harm than good.

1 comment:

momo said...

I was just sent an online survey about my satisfaction with the classrooms I taught in this semester. I got to tell them about the internet connection that didn't work half the time and the fact that it was 95 degrees all winter unless we opened the windows and door and let all the noise in. 20 years now.