Businesses protest coming light-rail work

Owners along University Avenue say the loss of parking will jeopardize their businesses.

John Hageman

With construction on University Avenue only weeks away, the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line is still facing resistance.
Small-business owners along University feel the city and project planners havenâÄôt done enough to prevent the construction from railroading them out of business. A major concern is the loss of on-street parking space, the only available parking for many businesses.
A federal judge forced Metropolitan Council officials to hear from business owners during two town hall meetings Thursday. Late last month, the judge ordered project planners to re-analyze how businesses will be affected by construction.
While some business owners saw the meetings as a positive step, others felt that because the Met Council was forced to have them by law and construction wasnâÄôt halted, members werenâÄôt genuinely interested in what they had to say.
About 30 protesters, representing that contingent of businesspeople, gathered outside the meeting Thursday morning on University Avenue in St. Paul.
âÄúItâÄôs a social injustice,âÄù said Mike Baca, vice president of the University Avenue Business Association. âÄúTheyâÄôre building this thing on the backs of small businesses that have been on the avenue for years.âÄù
The $1 billion Central Corridor is expected to be completed in 2014 and will connect downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis via Washington and University Avenues.
Officials from the Federal Transportation Administration were also at the meeting. Last year a coalition of the St. Paul NAACP, business owners and residents sued the FTA, Met Council and U.S. Department of Transportation.
The lawsuit claimed planners didnâÄôt adequately assess how businesses would be affected by construction in their final environmental impact statement.
The FTA is working with the Met Council to draft a supplemental environmental assessment that will include testimony from the meetings and will be completed in a few months.
âÄúWeâÄôre here to listen,âÄù said Mark Fuhrmann, Metro Transit director of New Starts rail projects. âÄúWe might learn of more ideas that would develop mitigation measures to help minimize the impact to those businesses.âÄù
After construction, just 175 of 1,150 current parking spaces will be retained along University Avenue.
During construction, the Met Council plans to install two-hour parking meters on side streets and is looking into permit parking for small business employees in residential areas.
Business owners had been negotiating for the use of pocket parking, which would turn vacant buildings into parking lots. But the idea was shot down as economically unfeasible.
To help alleviate lost parking, the city of St. Paul rewarded forgivable loans worth up to $25,000 to 24 businesses for off-street parking improvements as well as a $1.5 million loan fund to help businesses survive construction.
But Baca said itâÄôs not enough.
While he doesnâÄôt oppose the project, he wants better planning. He said that his business, Impressive Printing, plans to move âÄúas soon as possible.âÄù
Paul McGinley, board member of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, was more sympathetic to project planners. He said some of the issues raised by business owners have no foreseeable solution.
âÄúThereâÄôs going to be some businesses that will close and some businesses that will thrive,âÄù McGinley said. âÄúThe problem is, when you look at a business that may not be doing well, itâÄôs hard to tell if itâÄôs because of construction or because of the nature of business.âÄù
The meetings came days after President Barack Obama proposed $200 million for the project in his 2012 budget.
Many congressional Republicans, however, are intent on slashing funding to the New Starts program, which would provide future funding for projects like the Central Corridor.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee recommended cutting New StartsâÄô funding by 22 percent.
This could mean reformatting and a name change for the program, Fuhrmann said, but thereâÄôs not much danger of the Central Corridor project losing a significant amount of funding.