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Motion denied. Case closed. That was the message Peter Bell and the Metropolitan Council delivered last week to the University of Minnesota’s fading hope that light rail trains might be rerouted through Dinkytown to avoid cutting through the heart of the U’s main campus.
The case is not quite closed, however, and what started as an esoteric engineering dispute has left emotional scars on all sides.
When the line opens in 2014, Central Corridor trains seem destined to run as the Met Council wishes — at grade level along Washington Avenue Southeast, bisecting the busiest part of campus. Running trains on Washington is $200 million cheaper than running them in a tunnel just below, and more cost-effective than running them on a northern alignment through Dinkytown, as the U preferred.
But trains on Washington carry problems of their own, which is why the U has insisted on negotiating a formal understanding with the Met Council and other governmental partners on mitigation costs. Who will pay? And how much?
Sensitive laboratory equipment must be protected from the rail line’s magnetic fields and vibrations, says the U. The U hospital and clinics must not be cut off from auto traffic. Deliveries and refuse pickup must be maintained. Nearby neighborhoods must remain connected. And the new transit/pedestrian mall on which the trains will run must be an attractive asset to the campus, not a wall that divides it in half.
It’s possible for the Central Corridor project to absorb $31 million of those costs, Bell said. But the U has a list of traffic mitigation projects costing more than $50 million that the rail project, under its federal guidelines, cannot cover. Those include improving the intersection of East River Road and Franklin Avenue ($5 million), connecting East River Road to Main Street Southeast ($14.6 million), and building Granary Road ($34 million) to skirt the north side of campus. Those projects will help form an auto loop around the main campus to make up for the loss of Washington Avenue as a through street. But it’s not clear at this point how they will be paid for.
Mitigation remains pressing issue
Kathleen O’Brien, vice president for university services, said on Monday that the U continues to pursue a “dual track” approach, meaning that it hasn’t formally given up its Dinkytown alternative, although the Board of Regents may decide to do so as early as Friday. “We’ll know more next week,” she said. It’s unlikely that the university will seek court action to reroute the line, O’Brien said. More pressing now is the mitigation package.
The U’s love-hate relationship with the Central Corridor is something worthy of an Oprah episode. Light rail will greatly enhance access to its Minneapolis campus with three stations — on the East and West Banks and near the new football stadium. In an age of rising energy prices and serious environmental concerns, the line brings the U squarely up to date, even working as an intra-campus shuttle across the Mississippi River. The U is expected to provide one-third of the line’s 42,000 daily riders.
But as the line’s single most important constituent, the U didn’t get what it needed most — the tunnel. And it continues to question the validity of the federal formula that, first, caused the tunnel to be trimmed from the project and, as a fallback position, failed to favorably rate the Dinkytown alternative.
The formula is called the Cost-effective index, or CEI. Technically it’s only one of a half-dozen criteria that “new start” transit projects are required to meet to qualify for federal matching money. The Bush administration, however, has used the CEI as a kind of pass-fail test to strip projects to their bare bones and to screen out projects that don’t quite fit the formula. Therein may lie some of the U’s resentment. By elevating the CEI’s “cost per hour of travel time saved” above other benefits, the Bush administration has devalued the tunnel as an aesthetic amenity to the oldest part of the U’s main campus, and, in the case of the Dinkytown alignment, has devalued a route that would take trains closer to a new bioscience campus not yet built.
When the CEI demanded a $300 million cut in the project, the U felt it suffered most. Ramsey County, by contrast, with a direct financial stake it the project, got more of what it wanted.
From the standpoint of the Met Council and Peter Bell, a former regent who was not re-elected in 2007, the U’s complaints come across as arrogant. The U’s hiring of a Washington lobbying firm to aggressively question the CEI formula has damaged Minnesota’s standing with the federal transit agency. “They’ve second-guessed everything,” Bell said, “when actually the line is a huge amenity for the U.”
A leafy transit/pedestrian mall done right will draw admiration nationwide and greatly benefit the campus, he predicted. “It looks impressive and the U should be proud of that,” he said. As for the U’s challenging the CEI, Bell said that adjusting the formula helps to distribute scarce federal dollars to more locations. That’s a worthy public policy goal, he said.
Another way to look at the situation is that the demand for new transit lines far outstrips the supply of federal money available, and that Congress, in the next iteration of federal transportation law, due after 2009, should devote far more money to transit.
Central (PDF), for example, is competing with nine other projects for the same pot of federal money (see list below), and 200 more projects are waiting in the wings. The federal stake in the $909 million Central project is roughly $450 million. The other nine projects now in the preliminary engineering phase add up to more than $15 billion in federal, state and local funds.
TRANSIT PROJECTS IN PRELIMINARY DESIGN PHASE
San Francisco Central Subway
Miami Orange Line
Orlando commuter rail
Boston Silver Line
Twin Cities Central Line
Northern New Jersey Transit
Salt Lake City LRT
Northern Virginia Metrorail