Before he steps in to mediate a light-rail dispute between the University of Minnesota and the Met Council next week, retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Jonathan Lebedoff might want to buy Peter McLaughlin a drink. Or two.
The Hennepin County commissioner just invested three months of intensive “shuttle diplomacy” to keep work on the $1 billion Central Corridor light rail project moving, to no avail. Construction on the line is already under way in downtown St. Paul. Service is supposed to start in 2014.
“I’ve devoted well in excess of 100 hours,” said McLaughlin. “If I were billing by the hour as a consultant, it would be a successful year already.”
Met Council and U of M still at odds
The two institutions have been bickering over aspects of the 11-mile line for more than two years. The current impasse centers on the University’s refusal to give the Met Council permission to start work next month preparing campus side streets for construction of a planned light rail line connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“This isn’t about the money at this point,” said McLaughlin. “It’s about fixing the protocol.”
Once trains are rolling on Washington Avenue on the campus’ East Bank, traffic must take other streets. At the U’s request, the Met Council had planned to begin work on the new routes now, before the main construction starts.
Granting the temporary easement should be “a no-brainer,” said McLaughlin. Work on the rail line itself can’t begin until there’s a permanent easement, so the two sides have plenty of time to forge an agreement about the steps that will be taken to deal with the U’s concerns about protecting its research equipment.
The contractor that submitted the winning bid to the Met Council can do the work for $1 million less than was expected, but the bid is only good through April 27. The planning agency can’t sign the contract until it has a temporary easement from the University authorizing the work. The U won’t grant the permit because it isn’t convinced that sensitive laboratory equipment in buildings along Washington will be protected from vibrations and noise.
Last fall, the U filed suit against the Met Council, but both sides had hoped to iron out the issue before court-ordered mediation became necessary. (Minnesota Public Radio also has sued the council, claiming its proposal for mitigating noise and vibration generated by trains running in front of MPR’s downtown St. Paul headquarters is inadequate.)
During the course of dozens of meetings subsequently brokered by McLaughlin and his cross-river colleague, Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, the Met Council agreed to pay to mitigate vibrations and other problems the line might pose for the University, and to not start service until after tests have determined that any harm has been mitigated. If there are problems, “or even the threat of damage,” the agency said it will pay to fix them, McLaughlin said.
“What’s driving me crazy is that the two sides can’t find their way through that,” growled McLaughlin. “The question in play here is what happens if there is no direct harm. How much should they be forced to do or to pay if the standards are not met?”
It’s an important question, McLaughlin added, but there’s no good reason why the U should hold the temporary easement hostage before there are hard and firm answers.
Predictably, Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld agreed. “They’re taking a rather hard line in view of the fact that they still have the lawsuit hanging over our heads and given that they still haven’t granted the permanent easement,” he said.
Equally predictably, U of M President Bob Bruininks countered that the U can’t grant the temporary easement until it has assurances the Met Council will be held accountable. University negotiators were unmoved by Met Council protests that mediation would be expensive and protracted.
Not the first roadblock
McLaughlin and McDonough aren’t the first informal mediators to throw up their hands in disgust. Last fall, concerned that the project was about to miss a crucial deadline for federal funding, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, tried unsuccessfully to get the warring factions to come to an agreement. She said she now worries that even if the mediation is successful, the easement won’t be the last hurdle the U puts up.
“Though it seems like a minor blip, it now shows a pattern of an uncooperative partner,” she said. “It’s a small amount of money, but it’s a sign of things to come.”
Hausman also had harsh words for the Met Council, which she criticized for greeting any concern raised about the project with dire warnings that resolving the issue will be a costly delay. Her concern has been echoed in the past by community activists in St. Paul who wanted more stops along University Avenue than planners originally called for.
When the Central Corridor was first proposed, Bush administration transportation policy favored funding rail projects that moved people quickly, such as the North Star commuter line. As a result, the complicated “cost-efficiency index” federal planners used to evaluate projects essentially capped the number of stops trains could make and the amount that could be spent linking Minneapolis and St. Paul’s downtowns.
“This is why [Met Council Chair] Peter Bell in the early days said we have to keep the cost [issue] uppermost,” explained Russ Adams, executive director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, which pushed for more stops.
In January, the Obama Administration adjusted the framework for evaluating rail projects to consider their social, economic and environmental impacts on communities. When the administration announced the change, the Central Corridor was singled out as an example of the kind of project that could make a community more livable.
A Pawlenty appointee, Bell was quick to criticize the rule change, saying it would increase competition for federal funding.
If the current impasse isn’t resolved very quickly, Met Council officials warned last week, the current construction bid will lapse. Even if it doesn’t, any delay in starting could mean the work can’t be completed on the timeline the U requested, which had the traffic-snarling tasks completed by the time school starts next fall.
University spokesman Tim Busse said U officials are “very optimistic” that the schedule is still feasible.
Out of the shuttle diplomacy business, McLaughlin said he remains hopeful that mediator Lebedoff can coax the parties to a quick agreement. “I think this is still doable,” he said. “Every pronouncement from the university has been that they believe the project is important to them. I take them at their word.”
Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.