Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sleepless in Minneapolis

Dr. Tim Mulcahy is the VP for Research at the University of Minnesota. His take on the current light rail situation appeared this afternoon in the Strib. Here it is in its entirety:

(If you don't want to read the whole thing, skip to the U-tube video at the end and the comments above it - "Crux of the Matter")

Research at the U plays a vital role in the economy of the region and state, supports more than 20,000 jobs and holds the promise of curing some of humanity's most serious illnesses, as well as finding solutions to some of the world's most vexing problems. Much of this amazing work takes place in labs located along the light-rail line on Washington Avenue, one of the U's primary research corridors. The Central Corridor project puts at risk programs in as many as 80 labs in 17 buildings, some only 30 feet away from the line.

To establish a win-win scenario we seek engineering that guarantees that the trains will not increase vibrations and electromagnetic interference (EMI) in our laboratories to levels that exceed what exists today, and monitoring systems to ensure that continued operation of the line remains within these standards.

The university has shared these concerns -- along with some proposed solutions -- with the Metropolitan Council, the governmental unit responsible for the Central Corridor project, on numerous occasions and in four official document filings. Regrettably, these concerns remain unresolved. Hence, our dilemma: support for an important benefit on the one hand vs. the risk of significant damage to our research mission on the other.

Our optimism that a win-win outcome is possible is bolstered by the experience of a peer institution, the University of Washington, which was confronted with a virtually identical dilemma. Seattle's plan to route its light-rail line in close proximity to the university's sensitive research equipment prompted the school to articulate the same concerns we have cited. These concerns were not only considered reasonable and legitimate by the Seattle rail project leadership, the project accepted the terms stipulated by the university and have agreed to provide all necessary mitigations to ensure that the project "does no harm" to the current environmental conditions along the rail line's path through campus. Mitigation included installation of a "floating slab" track bed to reduce vibration and additional measures to prevent EMI. All involved recognized that such mitigations were essential to protect the integrity of the vital research taking place at UW.

Similarities between these two great public research universities are not limited to light-rail dilemmas. Both are their respective state's major research university; both are urban campuses knit into the fabric of their city; both conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of research annually; both train thousands of students in their research laboratories and contribute significantly to the economic well-being of the state. Both are research hubs for some of the most promising sectors of the economy -- biosciences, medical devices and imaging, renewable energy and climate change, among many others. Finally, faculty at both universities raised major concerns about the potential adverse impacts of the light-rail line on their sensitive equipment and the essential research it supports.

Sadly, however, the similarities end there. Our labs are much, much closer to the proposed LRT line than the labs on the Seattle campus. In fact, the section of the rail line that will run on Washington Avenue puts trains less than 30 feet away from some labs. But the most disheartening difference between the Seattle and Minneapolis light rail projects is the indifference of the Central Corridor project to the university's concerns.

Seattle's decision to heed its university's concerns provides a precedent confirming the legitimacy of the same issues raised here and, more important, demonstrates that it is possible to manage such issues to mutual benefit -- if only there is a willingness to do so. For the university to throw its support behind the Central Corridor project, we must be reassured that our concerns have been adequately addressed -- we need the same consideration that our sister institution in Washington state received when confronting the same challenges. To allow construction on the Central Corridor to move forward before the U's concerns about the impact on its research enterprise are resolved would be a risky, unnecessary gamble and would place the public's enormous investment in the university in jeopardy.

Until such time as an agreement is reached that provides for appropriate mitigations preserving the prerail ambient conditions along our research corridor, both during construction and ongoing operation of the Central Corridor, we at the University of Minnesota will remain sleepless in Minneapolis.

Tim Mulcahy is vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.

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