Railroading the stadium

It will be easier to sell the Legislature on something that will benefit all of us: expanding public transit on to campus.

I’m a college football nut. During the season I watch as many games as I can, then I follow all the bowl games, then recruiting, then I play NCAA football on my Xbox until the cycle begins anew. Yet, I must ask a question: How can this institute of brilliant minds come up with such a foolish waste of money as the Gophers stadium plan?

With the state still financially strapped and a governor who’s barely friendly with his own alma mater, the University attempts round two of “please, please, pretty-please give us our operating money – oh, and can we have a $100 million stadium too?”

Let’s get a few things out of the way now: The majority of students who are riled up for the full “college experience” of an on-campus stadium will not be around when it’s finished. If it manages to get built, I’d be surprised to see it before 2010. Still, don’t worry too much: Judging by the alumni I’ve seen at Gophers games, unless you’re older than 55, you probably won’t care anymore once you’ve graduated.

Second, there is an awful rumor being perpetrated that, by and large, all students are in favor of a new stadium.Which students? Our campus has 28,740 undergraduates and 16,673 graduate and professional students. Graduate and Professional Student Assembly represents the latter, and it’ll tell you its chunk of the population is not in favor of the current stadium plan (or anything short of “students won’t have to pay a dime”). As a member of that ignored third of the student body, let me speak to any state legislators who might be reading this article: “University President Bob Bruininks is not speaking for us, we don’t want it!”

While a football stadium would certainly add a “quality of life” bonus for football fans on campus (like me), it does very little for the educational or practical components of student life. Therein lies the problem: The state already has issues with allotting basic funding for higher education; why do we think it’ll want to fork over millions on something completely extra? Common wisdom says that to get something unrelated to our basic operations, we should try for something that would benefit all sides involved. Alas, as much as the spin doctors in Morrill Hall are trying, it’s really hard to see how a Gophers stadium will benefit the state.

Right now, we’re asking the state to fund a very expensive University vanity project. Isn’t there something better we can ask for? I think there is: something that already benefits the state, something that can be expanded to help the entire University community. The University should focus its energy on encouraging expansion of the Hiawatha light rail. I contend it’s an even sexier option than a new stadium.

By all accounts, the light rail has been a success. More people are using it than projected. Whenever civic planning goes that well, the next move is to expand it.

There are five major connection points in the Twin Cities. The current line connects three of them: downtown Minneapolis, the airport and the Mall of America. The next segment will connect the other two: the University and downtown St. Paul.

The preliminary proposals, as reviewed by the Board of Regents, have the next leg starting from downtown Minneapolis, crossing over the Washington Avenue Bridge and moving over to University Avenue Southeast on its way to downtown St. Paul. There would be a stop on the West Bank and at least two stops on the East Bank. Incidentally, the Washington Avenue Bridge was laid out with cars below grade so a public transit system could be laid on top.

Take a moment and imagine what student life would be like if we had light rail going through campus. Quicker and more convenient than the bus, a light rail line would allow students more options for cheap housing and access to work/internships. Partying in places such as the warehouse district would be far easier. Heck, if the Gophers are still at the Metrodome, going to games would be easier, too. Unlike the divisive stadium, light rail would benefit undergraduates, graduate and professional students, faculty and staff members.

Of course, you probably won’t be at the University if light rail expansion happens, either. But while it costs a whole lot more than a stadium, the state and federal governments will be kicking in most of the dough. The potential benefit to the entire University community and the state, with a massive number of constituents living on the proposed line, makes it a far-more-attractive proposal.

So let’s stop bull-spitting the State Legislature. Instead of trying to con it out of millions of dollars that will benefit it a little, let’s sell it into something that will benefit all of us a lot.

Bobak Ha’Eri welcomes comments at [email protected].