Supporters of the Central Corridor light rail project say a new effort by Minnesota Public Radio to change its downtown St. Paul route could delay — or even derail — the nearly $1 billion effort to connect the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns.
The public radio giant, which claims the trains will pass too close to its broadcast studios, sent a 17-page letter and diagrams (PDF) to Central Corridor officials last week requesting new studies of the route. It alleges that the Environmental Impact Statements completed so far are “incomplete and insufficient” and have “ignored the noise, vibration and safety impacts of a Cedar Street LRT on downtown’s unique Fitzgerald Park district, and on the MPR Broadcast Center in particular.”
Those problems, if unresolved, could force the broadcast center to shut down, “leaving MPR with no practical alternative but to sue (in ‘inverse condemnation’) to recover the value of its $100+ million Broadcast Center — a special use building — plus relocation costs and related fees.”
Met Council Chair Peter Bell said he’s “disappointed that Minnesota Public Radio is demanding a change in the alignment, instead of supporting engineering and operational measures that we are confident will work well.”
Bell said: “Reopening the decision about the alignment would cost tens of millions of dollars and delay the project at a minimum of one year for environmental impact studies on alternate routes already known to be unworkable and additional years if the preferred alignment changes from Cedar.”
Mayor Coleman says MPR’s stand endangers light rail project
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was even more animated about the MPR letter, telling a group Friday that the letter shows that “MPR is trying to shut down the Central Corridor” and that Bill Kling, president of MPR’s parent company, “is on a crusade that’s threatening” the project.
A delay for further studies — or the filing of a lawsuit — will mean added expense and could hurt the case for federal funding, Coleman said.
“Study is delay, and delay is death [for the project],” Coleman said. “And for St. Paul, the Central Corridor is not an option, it’s crucial for the future of our city.”
He urged a group of St. Paul opinion leaders — including several former City Council members, nonprofit officials and labor leaders — to contact MPR and ask it to stop the delaying tactics.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010 on the 11-mile light rail line connecting the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. The plan calls for service to begin in 2014.
But the selected route takes the light rail trains south from the state Capitol along Cedar Street and right alongside MPR’s headquarters in downtown St. Paul, where many shows are broadcast and recordings made.
MPR says it supports LRT but not Cedar Street route
In a statement on Monday, MPR spokesperson Jennifer Haugh said:
“While Minnesota Public Radio strongly supports the Central Corridor project, our first responsibility is to our members and listeners who have invested in our services and facilities for more than 40 years.
“As currently planned, noise and vibration from the Central Corridor LRT will compromise our ability to record and broadcast from our studios in downtown St. Paul. The impact of LRT on MPR’s Broadcast Center needs to be studied fully and all alternatives explored,” she said.
“We believe that it is more important to build the Central Corridor right, not just quickly. By addressing these concerns now, we can avoid greater delays and expenses to this important project in the future.”
But the Met Council’s Bell said Monday that extensive testing shows light rail vibration and noise impacts “can be mitigated at Minnesota Public Radio.”
Those mitigation efforts — which he said have been discussed with MPR management — include soundproofing of studios, special work on the tracks to reduce vibration and limiting the use of train horns.
“Under FTA [Federal Transit Administration] guidelines, LRT impacts on MPR studios are classified as moderate, and those same guidelines stipulate that mitigation is the appropriate remedy,” Bell said.
The Met Council has already sent its application to the FTA for approval of the project. The 4,000-page application will be reviewed, and a decision is expected early next year. If approval is granted, the federal government will provide half of the funding needed for construction, with the other half provided from state and local sources.
Laura Baenen, spokesperson for the Central Corridor, said FTA approval to enter the final design phase is expected by summer.
Two churches on Cedar Street, just north of MPR — St. Louis Catholic Church and Central Presbyterian — also have problems with the rail line running right past their front doors. They say LRT will disrupt their services, particularly funeral processions.
Coleman said he understands those concerns and that city and Met Council officials will find ways to mitigate those problems.
Lawsuit threat seen as jeopardizing federal funds
But the lawsuit threat from MPR, with its clout and resources, is a real threat to the project, he said. The Central Corridor is competing with many projects for the needed federal funds, and Coleman said any delays or lawsuits could hurt the project’s chances in that competition.
He said that MPR knew when it built its facility there in 2004-2005, that the light rail trains would pass nearby. Engineers at the time took that into account when designing the building, the mayor said, but “Now they’re saying they can’t survive.”
MPR has long opposed the Cedar Street light rail route because the trains will run near its building.
But last week’s letter — sent by attorney Joseph Finley of the Leonard, Street and Deinard law firm on behalf of MPR — goes further, saying that while MPR knew of the “potential for LRT on Cedar Street for some time,” it’s only in the past six months that it has had access to test data and engineering analysis “disclosing the extent of the significant negative impacts created by an LRT line operating in such close proximity to a broadcast and recording center.”
And, “out of frustration over the lack of verifiable noise and vibration data made available,” it has begun its own study to critique the Central Corridor study, the letter said.
MPR suggests two possible alternate light rail routes for the stretch that runs from the Capitol area to its terminus near the Union Depot: 1) Along Minnesota Street until it’s past MPR and then cutting over to Cedar, or 2) Along Robert Street until East 10th Street, then angling over to Minnesota Street all the way to Fourth Street.
But Bell said the final route already has been carefully considered and decided.
“Reopening the decision about the alignment would cost tens of millions of dollars and delay the project at a minimum of one year for environmental impact studies on alternate routes already known to be unworkable — and additional years if the preferred alignment changes from Cedar,” he said.
“While no route in a developed urban area is perfect, Cedar Street has been the alignment through multiple years of planning since the 1990s, because it best serves the downtown office core. [It] has the least impacts, because it’s not a major downtown access road, as opposed to Jackson, Robert and Wabasha/St. Peter, and remaining LRT impacts on this route can be mitigated.”
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics.