U takes stance on light-rail project

Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien details University concerns.

Correction: This article quoted Kathleen OâÄôBrien saying incorrectly who approved preliminary engineering. The Federal Transit Administration approved preliminary engineering in December, 2006.

Also, this article incorrectly stated that a tunnel would cost $130 million more than a street level alternative for the light rail on Washington Avenue. There is no available estimate for the difference in cost.

The Central Corridor light-rail transit line, which is slated to go across the Twin Cities and through campus, could be the future of the area’s transportation.

However, the rising cost of the project has made some of its features controversial. The Metropolitan Council must lower the cost of the project to $840 million in order to receive federal funding. A tunnel underneath Washington Avenue Southeast on the East Bank would cost an estimated $130 million more than an above-ground, or at-grade, alternative, according to the project Web site.

where to go

metropolitain council listening session
what: Talk to Central Corridor planners about the project.
when: Wen., Feb. 6, noon – 2:00
where: Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota
For more information, visit the Central Corridor Web site

Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien is the University’s point person as part of the Central Corridor Management Committee, which advises the Metropolitan Council about the design and construction of the line.

O’Brien spoke to the Daily on Wednesday about how the Central Corridor will affect the University and the Twin Cities.

What exactly does the University want the Central Corridor to look like at this point?

We believe that we need a strengthened transit system for the whole metropolitan region, and that the Central Corridor should ensure the optimal operation of the transit system.

The line should not build a wall through communities, but enhance the urban environment and build community and build the economy.

We don’t want a wall through campus that divides north of Washington (Avenue) from south of Washington (Avenue).

We have found at the University, over the last decade, that appearances do count. And that keeping the campus clean, keeping it maintained and beautiful, matters when students are selecting what college to come to.

So far the University has made it pretty clear that it would like to have a tunnel underneath Washington Avenue, but that seems to be fairly controversial. Are there any other possible routes that the University would be happy with?

We asked that the northern alignment be studied. At that point, that was defined as going Ö through the Dinkytown rail corridor to the northern edge of campus.

The Regents’ position, that has been the University’s position, was the northern alignment was our preferred route.

It was really the corridor team that made the decision to move forward with light rail on Washington Avenue and in a tunnel.

The Federal Transit Authority, when they authorized moving into preliminary engineering in the fall of 2006, stated the alignment of going through campus on Washington Avenue in a tunnel.

So this fall, as we moved into preliminary engineering Ö the corridor management team, which is now governed by the Metropolitan Council, believed that other alternatives – an at-grade alternative – needed to be studied. The University, once again, asked to have the northern alignment studied.

Right after the first of the year, (Metropolitan Council) Chair Peter Bell told the University that the corridor management team would be willing to study the northern alignment if the University paid for it. (University) President (Bob) Bruininks decided that it was so important to have the thorough, comprehensive analysis of these options done that it was prudent for the University to pay for that analysis. We believe it will be somewhere in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.

It’s just being scoped as we speak.

It sounds like they’re still studying some options, but the Metropolitan Council says it’s going to make some of these big decisions by the end of February. Is that too soon?

The University, and I believe our partners at the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County also, believe that additional studies need to be completed, and we certainly have told Chair Bell.

Usually when a project is being done, there’s an environmental impact statement that does some of this analysis, whether it’s traffic analysis or community impact analysis.

The environmental impact statement has not been done for an at-grade alternative.

We just want to make sure, whatever the action is, that the additional analysis will still be able to inform the design of the line.

The cost recently went up and everybody keeps saying it needs to go down. Is $840 million really a feasible budget for this project?

Agreeing to the assumption that we should be using the CEI, cost efficiency index Ö does potentially put us in the position of making bad decisions.

Other communities, like St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Diego, have a dedicated funding source for transit and they have used their local and state dedicated funding sources to allow them to have more creative negations with the Federal Transit Administration on the application of the CEI.

We believe that it’s very important for our state, as it’s building its transit system, to have a sound financing for it.

If the Central Corridor did go through campus above ground on Washington Avenue, what would that do to campus?

Washington Avenue today is carrying about 25,000 vehicles a day, about 1,500 buses and we have the equivalent of 10 rush hours. We have the highest pedestrian counts in the metropolitan area.

It’s already congested. We already have a high level of accidents along the street, and adding light rail just is going to cause a failure of the transportation system.

So does the University have a favored route at this point?

We’re trying to be a constructive participant in designing the line, and in order to be constructive, the University has agreed to study a number of options.

At this point, we have the Regents’ policy that says that if it’s in Washington in a tunnel or the northern alignment.

Why is this project so important to the University?

The University is a transit-oriented community.

The University is estimated to be one-third of the ridership on the Central Corridor.

What’s good for the region is good for the ‘U,’ but also a vibrant ‘U’ that’s working is good for the region.