Monday, April 5, 2010

Star-Tribune to University of Minnesota

President Bruininks:

Grant the Easement

First the Daily, now the Strib:

Editorial: The U's Halting Effect on Light Rail

Tortuous, technical negotiations are far from over between the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council over how to protect research labs located close to the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line. At this stage it is the university that must demonstrate good faith by yielding a point that could save taxpayers $1 million.

With costs continuing to spiral, the U should be doing everything in its power to protect taxpayer dollars. One thing it can do is to stop blocking the temporary easement that is needed to begin work on side streets, which will see more traffic once Washington Avenue, the main route that trains will take through campus, is shut down.

Time is of the essence, according to the Met Council, which needs to commit by April 8 to meet a planned May 3 start of side-street construction. This would allow the work to be finished before fall football and classes start.

If the U allows the work to proceed, savings of at least $1 million will be realized. Construction business is slow right now, holding down contractors' prices.

These savings are reason enough for the U to quit digging in and get with the program. But longer-term far more is at stake: Missing another construction season could add inflationary costs of up to $30 million to $40 million if the entire project is delayed.

Meanwhile, stubbornly holding out now is a policy and public relations blunder. The university can't afford to alienate taxpayers, legislators, the governor and other public officials -- but especially not taxpayers. Unnecessarily driving up public costs is never smart, but it will be viewed as particularly irresponsible during these tough times of slashed budgets for even basic human services.

The U rightly claims it needs to protect its investment in the labs, which pay great dividends to the state. But it indeed smells like a "red herring," as described by the Met Council's Public Affairs Director Steve Dornfeld, to claim that even this preliminary construction work could jeopardize lab equipment. "This is low-impact construction," Dornfeld said. "It's certainly not doing anything as destructive as building a new stadium," he added, alluding to TCF Bank Stadium, which was erected relatively close to the labs.

No institution will benefit more than the U from the Central Corridor line. Two-thirds of campus commuters already use transit, according to Kathleen O'Brien, the U's vice president of services. Adding light rail to buses would expand options for those attending class or sporting and cultural events. Yet the U has a history of resistance at nearly every turn, including a long fight for the so-called "northern alignment" line through Dinkytown, or, if that didn't work, a tunnel under Washington Avenue.

Now's the time for the U to finally embrace the project in full. As a first step, it must grant the temporary easement.

There's an interesting comment on the editorial, by John Finnegan, Dean of the School of Public Health:


It is clear from your editorial that you have essentially bought the Met Council version of this issue (that is, obstructionist University is to blame for delay, and only the Met is acting in the interest of taxpayers). That is your privilege.

And it is also the privilege of the Minnesota Daily and the Mayor of Minneapolis, and a lot of state legislators, and many citizens of the state...

However, it would have been useful to your readers if the editorial had done a couple of things: 1) Disclose the newspaper's past professional relationship with former journalist, now Met Public Affairs Director Steve Dornfeld, a primary architect with Chairman Bell of the storyline described above. Doing so would have helped your readers understand the fuller context for your buying the narrative and becoming part of its ongoing proliferation.

Ah, excuse me? Should the U disclose functionaries of the Pawlenty administration whom they have hired in hopes of getting their own message across? Should lobbying payments in this matter be disclosed? Transparency is not a one way mirror Dean Finnegan. In fact for you to even mention transparency in connection with the U administration is laughable.

2) Try not to twist a few facts in such a way as to uncritically support the Met's storyline. To wit, the laboratories and scientific equipment in question are only a few dozens of feet from the proposed Washington Avenue line. They will be exposed not to the one-time inconvenience of road construction, but to the continuous vibration and magnetic fields generated by quarter-million pound trains.

There seems to be some technical dispute about this matter - the vibration and magnetic fields. But there is no dispute that the line will be built, on Washington Avenue, and an easement would save taxpayers money.

Your dragging in the TCF stadium is a red-herring. The labs and equipment are a quarter of a mile or more distant from the stadium along Washington Avenue. I am guessing that you confused the new labs being built several hundred yards from the stadium with those along Washington Avenue. Oops, your bad.

No, your bad. How childish Dean Finnegan...

3) It is not only the Met Council who believes they are acting in the interest of taxpayers. The University also has that obligation since the affected equipment and labs are the product of taxpayer support.

And is it their duty to try to extract $25K per day even if there is no harm done to the operation of this equipment?

Ultimately, what does make sense is what has happened: the Met has finally accepted the University's position urging outside mediation.

And so why not grant the easement? Could it be pigheadedness? Arrogance? Stupidity? What?

In the interest of my own full disclosure, I am the Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

The last time the Dean wrote an intemperate email, he was identified. Perhaps he's learned something from the experience?

However, I do not speak for the University, the President, or the Senior VP of Health Sciences in making these comments. Nor do I have a dog in this fight in the form of labs or equipment along Washington Avenue.

The Dean may not have labs or equipment, but he certainly has a dog in this fight and stands cheek to jowl with the U Admin.

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