Central Corridor supporters fear MPR objections could derail LRT project

MPR's building, right, on Cedar and Seventh Streets in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio
MPR’s building, right, at Cedar and Seventh streets in St. Paul.

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.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Kassie Church on 12/16/2008 - 12:07 pm.

    MPR often comes off as a jerk. They were a jerk about the radio station in Northfield thing and they look like a jerk here. I support MPR, but I support public transit a hell of a lot more. I think most people do. They are going to end up pissing off their liberal base.

    Also, having spent time next to the LRT in Minneapolis, it seems it has a lot less vibration and noise than large trucks and buses do, both of which go down Cedar everyday in front of MPR.

  2. Submitted by sean mckenna on 12/16/2008 - 12:07 pm.

    Isn’t it interesting that the M.P.R. mantra favors all sorts of boondoggles like light rail and high speed trains and other wasteful spending but now when the “chicken comes home to roost” they complain?

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 12/16/2008 - 12:20 pm.

    I wonder what percentage of listener contributions goes to the lawyers?

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/16/2008 - 12:37 pm.

    In Oslo I worked at a radio station that had a light rail line running directly outside of it. I can’t remember a single broadcast being affected in any way.

    I don’t understand why Minnesotans think that this is the first time these problems have ever been encountered when we are a century behind the rest of the world in our rail infrastructure.

    I worked on the Whittier neighborhood’s meetings about the proposed SW transitway and I couldn’t believe when people thought the train would bring about the collapse of their 100-year old house. Isn’t there a subway in Rome? Maybe the difference is that Romans aren’t as steeped in stress because they don’t have to deal with I-94 at rush hour.

  5. Submitted by Jennifer Lynott on 12/16/2008 - 01:15 pm.

    1. If MPR knew about the light rail before buying the land or expanding, how can they sue?
    2. Why are my MPR donation dollars being spent on top lawyers and public relations to stop a much needed public transportation project?

    I, and many others, will not continue funding MPR if this is how our hard earned money is spent.

  6. Submitted by Megan.hanson Hanson on 12/16/2008 - 02:07 pm.

    I work near (almost two blocks away) from the light rail in Minneapolis, and I feel the vibrations and hear the horn every 7 minutes. While I’ve gotten used to it and barely hear it anymore, it could definitely make an impact if I was trying to record a radio show with highly sensitive microphones.

    After the way the state treated the University of Minnesota’s opinion (completely disregarded) on the central corridor I have no sympathy for them in this issue. This is what happens when you ignore your constituents for “cheaper” and “faster”.

  7. Submitted by Nina Thorsen on 12/16/2008 - 02:07 pm.

    It isn’t quite accurate to say that MPR built there after the LRT was proposed — they expanded their broadcast facility in 2004-2005, but they have been at Seventh and Cedar since the late 1970s.

  8. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/16/2008 - 02:51 pm.

    Seems like King Kling has an aesthetic problem with having the trains pass by . . . he’s counting on the fact that few of his major contributors are based in St. Paul, so for them it doesn’t matter when — or if — the Central Corridor line ever gets built. (Typical U.S. greed — what’s in it for me?) King Kling, meanwhile, has a fat salary from his ownership of the entire corporate “public radio” tax exempt enterprise. No minority stockholders to complain. To serve his ego, he’ll kill the funding for Central Corridor. Just watch. HELP!!

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/16/2008 - 04:21 pm.

    I’m with MPR on this and, unlike most of today’s commenters, believe that St. Paul’s light rail should be rerouted and perhaps should not even run down University Avenue. University is a series of residential neighborhoods, ethnic and other local shops and restaurants, small businesses of every type. Light rail would disrupt them all WITHOUT providing the stop-at-any-corner buses do.

    Please delay rather than build this in a way that can cause harm to not just MPR but to University Avenue and potential danger by running above-ground at the University.

  10. Submitted by Jason Walker on 12/16/2008 - 05:01 pm.

    I decided to stop donating to MPR when they watered down the Current a few months ago. It’s not eclectic when you play the same Beck song six times a day. This story just reinforces my decision.

  11. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 12/16/2008 - 05:03 pm.

    There are other technologies that would be far more appropriate for the corridor, come in under budget, and not cause these problems. The Bombardier Flexity Swift LRV is not the only type of vehicle that can be used for urban rail, nor does it make any sense to run it for 11 miles on city streets with smaller streetcars.

    MPR is suing because there are alternatives that have not been explored in the EIS process. They are very correct in that assertion. That does not mean they are against rail or that they would not welcome it next to their HQ – just that there are appropriate forms of rail that have not been looked at.

  12. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 12/16/2008 - 11:39 pm.

    For many years I attended a church in downtown Minneapolis close to HCMC. A fairly regular part of Sunday Mass was an ambulance or police car rolling by with sirens blaring, snow plow scraping, trucks rumbling. We’d get interference over the speakers from the Police radios.

    Our choir recorded several albums in the sanctuary, and occasionally had to rerecord a song. The priests occasionally just stopped in the middle of a service to let the sirens die down. It really wasn’t that bad.

    What happens if there’s a slight rumble of background noise as Gary Eichten interviews someone? Gary just presses on.

    If someone wants to go the alternative classical station because of a rumble while Mindy Ratner was introducing a Mahler symphony, well….oh, ya, the competition is gone, so noone will leave.

    A slight shudder as Lynn Rosetto Kasper gives her recipe for Garlic stuffed Roast Grouse? Not to worry; the Grouse will still turn out!

    To me, it is a great irony, because NPR has always loved to sprinkle live sounds into their reporting. Here, we will just get a little live sound, and know that they are broadcasting from a city. They can even do a feature on it… the sound of progress, of life, the sound of mass transit.

    So, MPR, no more NIMBY.

  13. Submitted by Dann Dobson on 12/17/2008 - 12:33 am.

    I agree with Bernie and Erik.

    Peter Bell, the Met Council and Mayor Coleman have determined to build light rail down the center of University Avenue, at any cost, where it will have to compete with cars, trucks and traffic lights, destroying the very effectiveness of light rail. Almost no other city has light rail compete with cars; witness NYC, SF, Chicago, DC, all built their system separate from cars, but the leaders here continue to ignore 100 years of lessons from other cities.

    Also Bell and Coleman killed three critical University Avenue stops, where they are needed the most; Western Avenue, Victoria and Hamline in order to bring the project in on budget, while ignoring the needs of the neighborhoods.

    Finally, Bell and Coleman are failing to provide virtually any parking along University Avenue for people to drive to the stops and get on the train. They think people will abandon their cars and take buses to the train.

    I wholly support lite-rail, but the Met Council, Bell and Coleman have designed a disaster simply to get it built, regardless of the effects on the surrounding neighborhood.

    Finally someone with enough muscle has stood up to Bell and the Met Council.

    May I submit that if MPR succeeds in killing this bad design, in the end we may actually get a better design, when Obama becomes President and the Bush cost-effectiveness guidelines, which lead to this terrible design, are trashed.

    It is the Bush cost-effectiveness guidelines and the mad dash to meet those deadlines that caused the elimination of the U. of M. tunnel and the elimination of the 3 University Avenue stops.

    Maybe a delay is not such a bad idea, if in the end we wind up with a better design, that better serves the communities.

    I, for one, am withholding judgment on MPR’s action.

    Dann Dobson
    St. Paul

  14. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/17/2008 - 11:50 am.

    There’s a lot of misinformed and misplaced reaction regarding the CC LRT line in this comment thread–too much to comment on all of it.

    To sum it up, while some folks (including MPR) are doing everything they can to undermine this project completely some of us are working tirelessly to improve the details of a much needed improvement to our region’s mobility system.

    The days of subways and elevated transit ways are far behind us as NYC and Chicago struggle to simply pay for the maintenance of their transit systems let alone expand on the old model. In fact NYC is moving towards implementing surface LRT as it realizes it simply cannot afford to expand its subway system.

    The CC LRT line will end up (if people stop wrongheadedly trying to kill it) as a fine hybrid LRT/Streetcar line down the center of University Avenue that will be a boon to the neighborhoods that surround it as well as to downtown St. Paul. The stations that Mr. Dobson complains about being eliminated will be built shortly after the initial construction. This is almost a certainty.

    What would be a waste would be to revisit alternate routes that have been discussed, studied and discarded time and time again. This quixotic exercise will leave us with nothing while our peer regions like Portland, Seattle and Denver continue to leave us in the livable city dust.

    Please rethink your actions MPR and others.

  15. Submitted by John Olson on 12/17/2008 - 12:11 pm.

    If the project gets delayed (which probably will occur), the only thing that happens is the costs increase that much more. Plus legal fees.

    The question is where is the tipping point where we just fuggettaboutit?

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