Friday, October 30, 2009

Latest on Light Rail and

the University of Minnesota

From MPR:

The University of Minnesota and planners of the Central Corridor light-rail line are under the gun to work out their differences.

A month ago, the university sued the Metropolitan Council over the nearly billion-dollar transit service that would link St. Paul to Minneapolis. The U of M says the trains would disrupt its sensitive research facilities, some located as near as 30 feet from the proposed tracks.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said when he met with FTA officials in Washington D.C. earlier this month, they made it clear that they're taking the U of M's lawsuit seriously.

"The message we're getting from the FTA -- both the university and us -- is 'get this resolved here, because we don't want this to play out in the courts,'" McDonough said.

McDonough, who chairs the county's rail authority, said the U and project planners are scrambling to close a tentative deal next month.

Met Council chairman Peter Bell said the U has legitimate concerns, and the negotiations are making progress. But Bell said if they can't strike a deal soon, it could jeopardize the project's chances of receiving permission to enter what's known as final design. He said that could ultimately delay the project by a year, adding tens of millions of dollars to the final cost.

"I think Mayor [Chris] Coleman and all of our project partners -- Hennepin County, Ramsey County, Minneapolis -- are all somewhat frustrated that the U hasn't moved quicker and been more concerned about addressing their needs in a cost-effective way," Bell said.

Bell also noted that the project is dealing with a finite pot of cash.

"Every dime we spend at the U is a dime we cannot spend along University Avenue, dealing with the parking issues, business mitigation issues, and the like," he said.

But university vice president Kathleen O'Brien said the U and its partners are working at lightning speed to untangle the technical issues that other campuses have taken years to resolve.

O'Brien didn't have a direct response when asked whether the U's concerns could harm the light-rail project.

"Do I think it could jeopardize the project? I think the Central Corridor will be built," she said. "In my role as vice president of the University of Minnesota, it's to protect ... the public's research university. This is an important project. These laboratories are critical as well."

With so much at stake, O'Brien said the negotiations can't be rushed.

The FTA wouldn't comment on whether the lawsuit could delay the project, but the agency has signed off on the project's lengthy environmental review. In its lawsuit, the university argued the review did not adequately address the transit service's adverse impacts on the institution.

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