Central corridor going down Washington Avenue

The Metropolitan Council voted to end consideration of the northern alignment route.

by Anna Ewart

The Metropolitan Council dealt the University a painful, yet unsurprising blow last Wednesday when it unanimously voted to end consideration of the northern alignment light-rail route, but decisions on the line remain.

Project planners said the northern alignment would have reduced the line’s cost effectiveness while also causing costly delays.

Further consideration of the northern alignment could delay the project by at least one year, increasing project costs due to inflation.

Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said it was time for the University to accept an above-ground Washington Avenue alignment.

“Time is of the essence,” Bell said after last week’s vote. “The University needs to acknowledge the timeframe.”

Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien cast last week’s lone dissenting vote during a meeting of project advisers. She said the University didn’t have time to complete its northern alignment study, which it is still working on.

The University is spending slightly more than $400,000 on the study, she said.

This month, the Board of Regents will decide whether the University will change its preferred alignment to the Washington Avenue route.

A plan to mitigate traffic in surrounding communities and safeguard fragile University research will also be considered.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Diane Hofstede, who represents the Dinkytown area, has heard community concerns that some neighborhoods won’t see any benefits from the line, but will feel the effects of increased traffic.

“This is the beginning of a discourse,” Hofstede said.

Bell and other corridor planners contend that the project must stick to the Federal Transit Administration’s strict schedule. The FTA must approve the project for plans to move forward.

O’Brien said the University is spending “five figures” to retain Patton Boggs, a lobbying and law firm that will help the University understand the federal guidelines and schedule.

“We really had a disagreement about how much flexibility there was in the schedule,” she said.

Other project partners have also hired consultants, she said.

“It’s not the intention for the University to seek a legal remedy,” she said. “We believe that there are major issues that need to be addressed and we’re trying to address them constructively.”

University General Council Mark Rotenberg said the University isn’t lobbying at this point because no lobbying needs to be done.

“The Met Council has not been interested in having an open dialogue with the FTA involving the University up to this point,” Rotenberg said.

Ramsey County Commissioner and Regional Rail Authority Chairman Jim McDonough said the University is working to make the above-ground Washington Avenue route work.

However, concerns from a major partner like the University could make the FTA nervous, he said.

O’Brien said the University does support the project and is working on a way to make the Washington Avenue route and transit mall work.

“The devil is in the details, and that’s where we are,” she said.

The Central Corridor has an $892 million budget, half of which will be covered by the federal government. The 11-mile line is expected to be open by 2014.