Strike delays LRT opening, but work – and debate – continues

Approximately 60 light rail workers are involved in the transit strike that has disrupted bus service.

Britt Johnsen

As the transit strike carries on for its 27th day, discussions on transportation conditions continue.

Transportation officials from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs held a forum at the State Office Building on Monday and debated legislative transportation issues.

“People are mad about transportation,” said Dick Braun, the University’s Center for Transportation Studies director. “I think that’s a good thing. Obviously something is going to change.”

Although no conclusions were reached, many issues arose. Officials discussed rising gas prices, highway expansion, the transit strike and light rail transit.

Metropolitan Council indefinitely delayed opening the light rail transit line in February because of the transit strike between the council and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005. However, officials are still making changes and raising questions.

Debate continues about what will happen next with mass transportation. Legislators and area business groups sparred last week about money that would fund a possible light rail transit line expansion along University Avenue, linking St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Klingel said an option such as this is something the Twin Cities needs.

“This is one of the most congested corridors in the nation that does not have a rapid transit option,” Klingel said.

The businesses are seeking $5.25 million from the Legislature, said Todd Klingel, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Klingel said Congress would give the money to any new transportation projects. It would be given to the State Legislature from the federal government and could go toward a University Avenue rail line, he said.

If people do not act on it now, the money might go to other states competing for transportation project funding, Klingel said.

He said the proposal is currently in the State Senate.

Though Klingel said he is optimistic the funding will be approved, Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not include any money for the line in his bonding bill.

Daniel Wolter, communications director at Pawlenty’s office, said it is not a bonding priority. He said light rail transit success must first be measured before it can be expanded.

“Certainly, the Hiawatha line would need to prove itself feasible and as a tool to relieve congestion before any consideration is given to expanding it,” Wolter wrote in an e-mail.

Though its opening was indefinitely delayed because of the strike, light rail transit work continues. Last week, Metro Transit received the 10th of the 24 cars the line will have.

There are several workers working on the trains daily. Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman, said 24 of those workers are from Metro Transit, and the rest are from

Bombardier Transportation, the light rail cars’ manufacturer.

Gibbons said approximately 60 light rail transit workers are part of the union and are on strike. The union represents 2,150 Metro Transit workers.

Met Council delayed the light rail’s opening indefinitely when the union authorized the strike. Jennifer Lovaasen, Hiawatha project coordinator, said it was necessary to do this because the line is interdependent with Metro Transit.

The Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, and the union are debating over contract issues. The main issue is health care, which initiated the strike that began March 4.

But union officials have hissed at the decision, saying the Met Council used the strike as an excuse not to open it on time.

Peter Bell, the Met Council chairman, has said it will be approximately two weeks after the strike ends before an opening date will be set.

Gibbons said the line is contractually bound to an opening by Dec. 31. The contract is with the federal government, which is funding $334 million of the project’s $715.3 million cost.

“We were ready to open,” Lovaasen said. “We are committed to opening the full line by December.”