Miracle on Washington Avenue? It may take one to resolve U of M objections to Central Corridor LRT

An artist's rendering depicts the changes that light rail would bring to Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
An artist’s rendering depicts the changes that light rail would bring to Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

Building a light rail line through the heart of the Twin Cities is turning out to be way harder than anyone imagined. If the Central Line is to open by 2014 and stay within its $941 million budget, then miracles have to start happening.

Negotiators reported no miracles on Thursday in trying to settle a dispute that, if unresolved, could trigger a University of Minnesota lawsuit against the project. The U fears that vibrations and electromagnetic interference from trains may damage sensitive research laboratories located along the line’s Washington Avenue route. It wants not only technical changes to reduce possible damage but assurances of remedies for any damage that may occur in the future.

Metropolitan Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld emerged from Thursday’s four-hour session sounding like a diplomat: “Significant progress was made on several key issues. We’re hopeful that the project can go forward while affording the University the protection it needs for its research facilities.”

Council Chairman Peter Bell would have no comment, he said.

The sides missed a Dec. 15 deadline imposed by Bell but will meet again on Wednesday. It will be the 21st time the sides have met on LRT issues, Dornfeld said. He estimated the cost of the technical changes sought by the U at $32.9 million committed to traffic and pedestrian features on campus.

Kathleen O’Brien, vice president for university services, agreed that progress had been made but declined to elaborate. The U’s top priority, she said, is achieving confidence that researchers can continue their work without disruptions.

The U dispute is only one of several that have placed Bell and the Central Line project in a bureaucratic vise. Various parties are taking bites out of the budget while time runs short on keeping the project viable for federal funding. The Federal Transit Administration has made it clear that lawsuits and other complaints, if left unresolved, would push the project off the front burner. Failure to get the Central Line into President Obama’s budget next year could jeopardize the start of construction next summer and push its opening to 2015 or later.

Bell settled a dispute with Minnesota Public Radio, which had built new studios on the LRT route in downtown St. Paul, then decided to seek mitigation for possible noise and vibration.

More troubling, perhaps, are the unresolved civil rights complaints from two St. Paul community groups, the Concerned Asian Business Owners and the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee. The groups expect the Central Line to cause disproportionate damage to minority communities, and they want compensation. They accuse the Met Council of failing to address the issue in its environmental review of the project, as required by federal civil rights law.

The Asian business owners say they expect lengthy construction and the loss of curbside parking to harm Asian businesses disproportionately. The project’s environmental impact statement “fails to express even a general intention to establish a compensatory program to support or sustain businesses or services that are adversely impacted,” Gen Fujioka, a policy analyst for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, wrote on the group’s behalf. “Absent mitigation, many of today’s small businesses will likely be shut down during the three-year construction project,” he wrote. “The loss of the minority businesses in turn will undermine the vitality of the communities they serve.”

Fujioka doesn’t use the term “gentrification,” but it’s obvious that the Frogtown and Rondo areas fear that LRT will increase property values and make the neighborhoods unaffordable for many residents. The issue has a bitter history, especially in the Rondo neighborhood. Grievances are still felt in the African-American neighborhood that was split apart by the construction of Interstate Hwy. 94 in the 1960s.

(Bell’s family was one of those affected; the Central Line, in contrast, will not require the demolition of homes or businesses or the displacement of residents.)

Minority communities have watched the Council negotiate with MPR and the University and wonder when their day is coming. “The history of the [Central Line’s] development is replete with instances where the non minority and non low-income communities were provided with enhancement and mitigation not offered (or even discussed) with the African-American Community,” the Rondo group’s attorney, Thomas F. DeVincke, wrote in the formal complaint.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said that the Federal Transit Administration “takes these complaints very seriously.”

Dornfeld said that the council doesn’t see race as a factor in how the project affects businesses and neighborhoods along the line.

Indeed, it’s curious that while the civil rights complaints seem to blame the LRT line for running through disadvantaged neighborhoods, one remedy sought is additional stations. Various St. Paul groups want stations to be added at Victoria Street and Western and Hamline avenues. The problem is that adding stations also drains the project’s budget and slows the running time of trains between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Both of those factors lower the project’s cost effectiveness index (CEI), a threshold in evaluating a project for federal funding.

Hausman compared the problems of building the Central Line with federal money to being placed in a straitjacket. “You learn all kinds of things along the way that would make the line better if you could change them, but you can’t. You’re tied into decisions that were made 10 or more years ago. You can see why some cities have decided to build these things on their own.”

No one’s suggesting that the Central Line won’t be built. It’s the centerpiece of the metro area’s future transportation system. But, compared with the Hiawatha Line, designing and building Central has produced one migraine headache after another. The benefits of building a train line as close to riders as possible are huge. The intimate route down Washington and University avenues accomplishes that.

But proximity adds complexity. And complexity adds stress — especially when time, money and human patience are in such short supply.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Justin Heideman on 12/18/2009 - 10:37 am.

    The U needs to be a little more forthcoming with the details of their “sensitive research laboratories”. I can’t help but think it’s total BS. What is so sensitive? Tell us. It’s not as if the U doesn’t have a 50 other buildings they could re-arrange a few labs to.

  2. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/18/2009 - 10:42 am.

    It doesn’t take a miracle, it takes a commitment to do it right:


    We can recast this project using the proper technology for an urban environment AND still do it on time, using Portland’s experience of 3 years from design to opening as a guide. We have to have a little courage, yes, but the problem is completely solvable with the right technology.

    (follow the links in the story given for more details on how the Modern Streetcar can work on the Central Corridor)

  3. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 12/18/2009 - 12:07 pm.

    Much of this could have been avoided if Bell et al had not insisted on going up Washington Avenue. There was a nice route to serve the U that didn’t use the Washington Ave bridge, which will be essentially rebuilt for this, and served both the U and surrounding neighborhoods better. Better to do it right than fast–and the Hiawatha took more time than you indicate here. See Iric Nathanson’s new book: Minneapolis in the 20th century, just published by the MN Historical Society.

  4. Submitted by Garrett Peterson on 12/18/2009 - 12:38 pm.

    The U is concerned about the vibrations and electromagnetic interference for large, expensive equipment such as nuclear magnetic resonance. It’s my understanding that some equipment would have to be completely dismantled in order to be removed, so there are some real concerns.

    However, the U was originally advocating a TUNNEL under Washington Ave. I find it hard to believe that a tunnel would have been preferable for vibrations.

    The northern alignment through Dinkytown made a lot of sense, but I think it failed to meet the FTA’s cost-effectiveness index requirement.

    The U has legitimate concerns, but this chosen alignment was not a surprise, and these concerns should have been raised a couple years ago.

  5. Submitted by Dave Thompson on 12/18/2009 - 12:39 pm.

    What a joke. Did the U complain when all those buses came thundering past their research labs? Why, no, they built more labs next to the roadway. Now that many of the buses will be REPLACED with LIGHT rail, suddenly there is a problem.

  6. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 12/18/2009 - 02:17 pm.

    There’s no secret on what labs and what equipment is being impacted by light rail. Ask the University and they will tell you exactly where they are located. As one reader above stated, there are some rather large magnets located in Jackson Hall which is immediately adjacent to Washington Avenue.

    And yes there is a lot vibration now, especially from buses but also from large delivery trucks. Many of the labs and equipment make accommodations. However Light rail cars add MORE vibration. Basically due to two reasons: LRT cars are a lot heavier than buses and trucks and it’s steel “wheels” on steel rails versus rubber tires on asphalt. Thus more vibration.

    Mitigation doesn’t seem to be the issue. The University just wants to make sure the mitigation works, and if it doesn’t, make some sort of arrangement to change the mitigation to make it work. For some reason the Met Council is willing to spend the $$$ on the mitigation but is unwilling to ensure that it works over time.

  7. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/18/2009 - 02:53 pm.

    If you haven’t read Erik’s post, please do. He has an even better one with more detail.


    He has been saying this for years and it is clear that he has been right all along. The plan that they have has so many terrible flaws that it can not be built without a lot of terrible destruction. There is an alternative that Erik spells out.

    It is never too late to stop this madness! A streetcar is the answer, if only people will listen!

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/18/2009 - 03:13 pm.

    Since the stations are so far apart and run through a mostly residential and small-business area (except for Midway Shopping Center), wouldn’t it be less disruptive to have the tracks follow the older tracks behind Union Depot now in place, with stops at the Amtrak Depot and Dinkytown before zipping its riders to downtown Minneapolis?

    Now that we have buses that pollute less, using them instead of light rail would save people with walkers and wheel chairs, elderly people, late-night and other workers who don’t have cars from having to navigate three to six blocks to reach a station?

    How many millions might be saved?

  9. Submitted by Erik Hare on 12/18/2009 - 04:13 pm.

    Thanks, Annalise.

    Let’s at least consider the Modern Streetcar to be “Plan B” for this project. The alternative is likely to be that it will have to be stopped altogether. Is that something which we are willing to do? Are we willing to throw this into the courts without a “Plan B”?

  10. Submitted by Gary Gleason on 12/18/2009 - 05:30 pm.

    Why not move the line over to University Avenue and have the intersection with Hiawatha happen at Government Center. Nothing happens over at the Metrodome now except for a few football games, and that might not last too much longer anyway!

  11. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 12/19/2009 - 05:27 pm.

    I’m getting annoyed with the U on this one, though I’m glad it’s been pointed out that the original plans had been for a tunnel. Yeah, I really don’t know if that would have made the vibration issue better or worse. I still find it very hard to believe the vibration from the train will be significantly greater than the trucks and buses that currently run there.

    Unfortunately, a lighter streetcar system is definitely not the answer for the Central Corridor. If anything, we need to go the opposite direction and have longer trains, and to do that they would either need to be elevated or underground. The Hiawatha platforms are all being extended to handle 3-car trains, but they can’t get any bigger than that because that’s how big a city block is in downtown Minneapolis. Hopefully that will be enough capacity for the future, but we’ll have to see.

    Per mile, the Hiawatha line is the 4th-busiest light rail system in the country. Two out of the three above us really are “systems” with multiple lines. The remaining one is also a single line — the Houston METRO, which runs on city streets for most of its route, much like the Central Corridor will. Once you go beyond those three, you get into heavy-rail rapid transit systems which can have much higher capacities.

  12. Submitted by gary Vogel on 12/20/2009 - 03:10 am.

    It is absolutely insane to put that light rail down Washington Ave. I say this as a big supporter of a Central line. Note that nobody is talking about the traffic problems caused by closing down those few blocks of Washington Ave– just where is that traffic going to go? The bridge over the river is vital to traffic, and on the east side of the river there is NO way to reroute the traffic onto other streets. Both north and south of the bridge on East River Road there is absolutely no room to widen the streets to handle traffic increases, and there are many other concerns- such as the way the north end cuts through the campus, and the extremely busy loading dock for the hospital complex on the south side.

    And I would personally ask anyone who thinks that traffic and light rail can co-exist on Washington Ave to stand on the corner of Harvard and Washington during the day. THERE IS NO ROOM.

    Which leaves the options of a tunnel or the reroute that the University originally conceived. Unfortunately, those options appear to kill the funding.

  13. Submitted by William Pappas on 12/20/2009 - 08:37 am.

    It is not surprising the Rondo Neighborhood is suspect of another transportation system targeting their location. But it is really beyond me how these businesses on University or minorities in the adjacent neighborhoods will be adversely affected. It is precisely because population density is higher here, more people move about without cars, and the financial impact of a reliable commuter train will be most beneficial is the exact reason this route was chosen. Without question, LRT will attract development in the form of housing and the attending small businesses. Inspect any other commuter rail in America. It immediately stimulates affordable housing, increases the volume of existing small business and provides opportunities for many more. It actually encourages the growth of community based businesses. That is why I don’t believe the complaints of the Asian businesses are actually about the end result but reflect on their ability to survive the three year construction period. LRT will make the RONDO community stronger and provide many more opportunites to work in areas of the city not previously available to those without cars. Affordable housing will flourish. Count on it.

  14. Submitted by John Olson on 12/20/2009 - 04:40 pm.

    When the Central Corridor proposal goes down the tubes, the U of M will not be solely to blame, but they will be the main culprit. The Met Council needs to have its head examined as well. It does not take a Rhodes Scholar to know that the Washington Avenue bridge is dilapidated and in need of replacement–not repair.

    As for the businesses on University Avenue complaining: this has been in the works for some time now. To try and somehow convince the rest of us that you had no idea what was going on until a couple of months ago is pure hogwash. This would have been a chance for your businesses to be noticed along the route.

    It would be nice to significantly reduce the number of buses belching diesel exhaust between Minneapolis and St. Paul by shifting over to light rail, but that is becoming less and less likely. Meanwhile, money is being wasted throughout downtown St. Paul rerouting underground services in anticipation of light rail that may never come now.

    I hope Mr. Bruininks and the disgruntled business owners on University Avenue get together for a very nice meal to celebrate the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars. Bill Kling can cover it for MPR since he isn’t a big fan of it either.

  15. Submitted by Erik Hare on 12/20/2009 - 05:40 pm.

    John, you are correct when you suggest that the Washington Avenue Bridge has not been adequately looked at. We have little reason to believe that this bridge, from the same era as the I-35W Bridge, will support the additional weight. I also completely agree that this problem has been, from the beginning, a fundamental failure of the Met Council to match the needs to the route to the technology.

    As far as the capacity of Streetcars, I agree that they may not be adequate for the long haul. I further agree that the BN corridor to the north may be a good place for LRT, although there are other benefits to using the CP owned Short Line to the south. The advantage of building the University line, as defined, with Streetcars is that we do not preclude any higher volume options for the future – in appropriate locations.

    Keep in mind that a Streetcar system is probably also a good option for Snelling Ave (84 Bus), Selby/Marshall (21), Grand Ave (63) and perhaps Randolph (74). These can also be added as it makes sense.

    Scalability and appropriate scale remain the important issues. The design that has been proposed for University is at a very high and inappropriate scale – but also incapable of growing any further. It is, in many ways, the worst of all worlds.

    This is, indeed, a fundamental failure of the Met Council. This failure is primarily their inability to learn from the mistakes of the past and to implement appropriate multi-modal scalable transit as shown in “A Pattern Language” and many other important guides to planning.

    The sooner this project dies or moves on to “Plan B”, the better. What has been proposed is ridiculous in the extreme and, as I have said for many years, is not going to be built as they have designed it. We have wasted far too much time and money on an unworkable scheme so far. Let’s admit the mistake and GET ON WITH SOMETHING REAL!

  16. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 03/11/2010 - 02:00 pm.

    Where’s Steve Berg?

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