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Central Corridor light rail line faces critical moment

“It’s getting down to crunch time,” Peter Bell said Wednesday. The Metropolitan Council chairman was talking about next month’s choosing of a final alignment for the Central Corridor light rail project (PDF). The council’s vote, expected Feb.

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“It’s getting down to crunch time,” Peter Bell said Wednesday. The Metropolitan Council chairman was talking about next month’s choosing of a final alignment for the Central Corridor light rail project (PDF). The council’s vote, expected Feb. 27, is likely to leave University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul interests more unhappy than they already are, Bell said. But no major transit project anywhere gets completed without compromise.

This particular compromise, likely to require canceling a tunnel at the university and stopping four blocks short of Union Depot in St. Paul, isn’t quite like others elsewhere, however. The unhappy parties are being forced into a financial box constructed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s no-new-tax ideology, which precludes the kind of predictable local funding steam that gives other cities more flexibility on their transit projects.

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Politics, in other words, is squeezing the Central line. The terms of its design are being dictated not by what’s best for the long term but on what’s cheapest at the moment. Central’s cheaper alignment may prove ultimately regrettable especially for the university. Running trains through its main campus on the surface may impose traffic mitigation and esthetic costs that exceed savings on the tunnel. It may be the kind of pennywise, pound-foolish decision to which Minnesotans have grown accustomed. And it may prove to be a classic example of the fundamental battle that’s now defining Minnesota: What do we value most, excellence or parsimony?

‘I’m embarrassed for our region’
Pawlenty rubbed salt in the wounds Monday by including in his bonding package only half of the money needed this year for the line, adding that he’d double the ante if the parties “got their act together” on the alignment.

That hint of extortion drew a furious response at the university. It is Pawlenty’s inability to get his act together on transportation funding that’s the fundamental problem, said Kathleen O’Brien, vice president for university services. She offered Denver, Salt Lake City and San Diego as examples of cities with dedicated streams of transit money allowing them to tailor projects to their own needs, not solely on cheapest-only formula dictated by Washington.

“I’m embarrassed for our region,” O’Brien said. “And now to have this pontificating that the university and Ramsey County are to blame. Well, why should we build a line that doesn’t work? If we’re only going to build one line every 10 years, and even then not do it right, why bother?

“This is a 100-year decision,” she said. “It’s not just about one LRT line, it’s about the whole transportation system in the central part of the Twin Cities. If we mess up here, the whole system breaks down.”

Bell said both the university and Ramsey County, which wants the St. Paul terminus at Union Depot as originally planned, are “raising legitimate concerns.” But the funding parameters have been established and the council must work within them, he said. To meet the Cost Efficiency Index needed to qualify for 50 percent federal funding, the project must trim about $150 million from its projected $990 million cost. Bell hinted that that may mean no tunnel, no reconstruction or greening of University Avenue and no connection to Union Depot, at least not now. Extending the line to the depot could be part of any future high-speed Chicago-St. Paul rail project, he said. As for the university, eliminating the eight-block tunnel under Washington Avenue would save at least $128 million, a figure that cannot be ignored.

Rather than running trains at grade level through the heart of its campus, the university would like to study shifting the line to University and Fourth Avenues, then across the 10th Avenue Bridge. But that study would, as Bell points out, delay the project and add at least $40 million to the price tag. That route would also decrease ridership and add time to the trip, factors that would make the federal formula even harder to meet.

Cash problem
Settling the alignment dispute may not be Central’s toughest challenge, however. Lack of money is. “There’s a big-time cash problem,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “Somebody has to write the checks to build this thing.”

As now conceived, the federal government would pay half of the project’s cost, $420 million. Of the local half, Ramsey and Hennepin Counties would pay one-third; Ramsey $98 million and Hennepin $42 million. The state would pay the other two-thirds, $280 million. While the counties have set some money aside for Central, the state has not. It has two sources. One is to borrow the money, with Pawlenty pledging to borrow $70 million — or maybe $140 million if the alignment dispute can be solved. The second source is a transportation bill that requires higher taxes. Twice, in 2005 and 2007, the Legislature passed such a bill, but Pawlenty vetoed it each time, objecting to the tax provisions. He seems unlikely to change his mind this time, thus placing the whole enterprise in doubt.

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“When the feds see that we don’t have the money committed, they’ll downgrade the project; it’s either that, or we get a dedicated funding source,” McLaughlin said.

The only source large enough to build Central and a half-dozen other unfunded transit lines is thought to be the sales tax, the same source that other cities across the country have used. Raising the tax a quarter-cent in the seven-county metro area would yield about $110 million a year, probably enough to keep Central alive and on schedule to open in 2014.

So, Met Council Chairman Bell is right: it is crunch time for the Central line, both on its alignment and on its funding. There’s a bumpy track just ahead.