Laying the tracks

With the light-rail line a go, the University community needs to hear more specifics.

By 2014, the University is set to have light-rail trains tolling somewhere through our campus. According to the plan approved by the Metropolitan Council on Feb. 27, the line will run at surface level on Washington Avenue on a car-free transit mall, with all present car traffic, and possibly buses, rerouted elsewhere.

While this idea has an undeniable aesthetic appeal, that should only be one of the many factors that needs to be weighed in coming months. There are 25,000 cars and 1,500 buses that travel Washington Avenue each day, and figuring out exactly where that traffic will go without access to the campus’s main artery is a very big question for which the Metropolitan Council, so far, has no answer. Some $39 million from the total $909 million plan has been set aside for traffic mitigation, much of it directed at the University, but many secondary streets on our campus are already stressed to their limit, as any commuter can attest. And the University of Minnesota Physicians’ Clinics estimated that the plan could cost the University $100 million a year if patients aren’t able to access it.

Our view, one shared by the University administration, is that another route, dubbed the northern alignment, running through Dinkytown and linking with the West Bank over the 10th Avenue Bridge or the bicycle bridge, would be the best option. But despite numerous prior requests by the University, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell only allowed the required feasibility study for that route to begin in January; the results won’t be ready until this summer. If the results are encouraging, using the plan would delay the entire project by a year, adding another $40 million to the price tag due to inflation. The Metropolitan Council may have approved a plan of uncertain workability – because of the daunting traffic complications – over a plan that might serve the University better, but wasn’t even considered until it was too late to be implemented on schedule. Not what we’d call ideal planning.

Wherever the line goes, light rail will change our campus. We are hopeful and confident it will be for the better. But students, staff and businesses deserve to hear a comprehensive explanation of how the University will proceed in this decision that will affect us all so much.