U, Met Council strike compromise

The agreement will allow light-rail construction to begin as early as May.

by James Nord

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents granted the Metropolitan Council a temporary easement Friday to begin preliminary construction for the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line on Washington Avenue. The Met Council expects to begin minor construction in early May, following a timeline requested by the University that would allow work to end before football season starts in September. The deal also included âÄúan agreement by the Met Council to design, build, operate and perform to standards that protect the research environment at the University of Minnesota,âÄù Vice President for University Services Kathleen OâÄôBrien said. The University had previously argued that it should receive payment if the accepted standards for electromagnetic interference and vibration are exceeded, originally slated to be $25,000 per occurrence. The University abandoned this stance under the current agreement. In place of this, the two sides established a set of scenarios to deal with vibration and electromagnetic interference that exceed those standards. Under certain circumstances, such as the âÄúcatastrophicâÄù failure of some light-rail infrastructure, the University could cover up to half the cost of replacing the equipment, granted the Met Council has performed adequate maintenance. Additionally, both parties agreed to the framework of a construction management plan that would also include protection for University research. While not a final agreement, this deal lays the groundwork for more serious discussion between the two sides, who have engaged in legal wrangling since the University sued the Met Council in September. âÄúIt is the first step in achieving our objectives and allowing the advanced traffic improvements to start on schedule,âÄù OâÄôBrien said in a press release. âÄúWe now have a framework for a comprehensive agreement that includes the necessary protections for research.âÄù New progress from the mediation sessions came in the form of agreed-upon standards for vibration, dust and noise during the construction process, a boon to the University. OâÄôBrien called the negotiations âÄúsometimes tense and sometimes cooperative.âÄù Lawmakers canceled a Friday meeting to discuss legislation that would have forced the University to give the easement. Questions whether the looming legislation motivated the University to promptly come to an agreement on the issue were met with few straight answers by administrators. But President Bob Bruininks said the University had been interested in mediation for months. He called legislators âÄúgrumpy and crankyâÄù about the easements and other issues but said the University was working diligently on coming to an agreement. All this comes as the University and the Met Council will go to lawmakers for additional bonding allocations as part of the deal. The University will need $25 million to move sensitive research equipment away from the construction site, OâÄôBrien said. The Met Council and the University will ask the Legislature to provide half of that funding. Bruininks said Gov. Tim Pawlenty âÄústrongly supportedâÄù the allocations and expected him to sign a bill containing that language. Roughly $15 million of the $25 million could go to relocating the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab, OâÄôBrien said. The facility, which houses seven enormous, powerful magnets used to investigate health sciences, receives more than $100 million in funding yearly and is accessed by about 160 University researchers, as well as the private sector, OâÄôBrien said. Plans for moving the lab have been in place for about two years, Bruininks said. It could be relocated to an East Bank parking garage, under current plans. An additional five or six labs could be relocated or refurbished with added protections using the remaining $10 million. OâÄôBrien said the cost of moving or remodeling a typical lab ranges from $750,000 to $1.5 million. Although the University could spend millions on its laboratories, short-term inflationary costs will be avoided by the Met Council. Allowing the preliminary light-rail construction to commence will save roughly $1 million that could have been lost if the contract had expired and reopened to new private bidders. Both parties were in mediation for three days before the agreement was reached, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said. They were originally ordered into the forced talks by a Hennepin County court March 15 after negotiations bottomed out in January. The two sides are expected to go back into mediation April 26, and OâÄôBrien said it would be âÄúwiseâÄù to reach a final agreement soon after that. She said 95 percent of the remaining issues, including the specific details of the Washington Avenue pedestrian/transit mall and other easements, were essentially agreed upon, but nothing has been signed yet. Once the final agreement is official, the University would drop its current lawsuit, OâÄôBrien said. Before signing it, however, an amendment to the agreement requires the Board of Regents to be consulted.