Light-rail plans nearly finalized

Metropolitan Council members voted on Wednesday to take the Central Corridor light-rail line into final design – and nixed plans for an underground tunnel.

The vote came after months of debate over which features of the plan would make the cut. The 11-mile light-rail line will travel at street level through the East Bank of the University via a transit and pedestrian mall, before crossing the Mississippi River on the Washington Avenue Bridge.

The project is required to meet the Federal Transit Administration’s cost-effectiveness index in order to receive federal funding for half of its total cost.

Central corridor

Features of the winning plan include:
• A transit mall on Washington Avenue through campus
• Washington Avenue Bridge modifications
• Fifteen new stations along approximately 11 miles of track, with a western terminus at the Minnesota Twins ballpark, and an eastern terminus in front of the St. Paul Union Depot
• Infrastructure for three future stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western avenues
• Total project mitigation costs of approximately $39 million
• Total project cost of approximately $909 million

At a total cost of about $909.1 million, the project will include infrastructure for three future stations along University Avenue and $39 million to offset the effects of the line’s creation.

The line is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul by 2014.

For the past several months, Central Corridor planners have been forced to decide which features would make the cut.

Some Metropolitan Council members said they approved this plan even though they have reservations about the alignment.

“This is probably not the best line we could have built,” said Councilman Tony Pistilli. “But it’s probably the best line that can be built.”

Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien, a member of the Central Corridor Management Committee, voted to recommend the Metropolitan Council adopt the plan.

However, she said she voted in favor for the sake of progressing project planning, but was not in favor of the line’s route through campus.

The University fought hard for a tunnel underneath Washington Avenue, but that feature would have added significantly to project costs.

In spite of Wednesday’s decision, there are still details that need to be worked out.

The transit and pedestrian mall on campus could be open to light-rail, pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Another possibility would only allow emergency vehicles, busses and pedestrians on the Washington Avenue segment of the route, pushing other traffic onto surrounding streets.

Studies will be completed later this year to see what is feasible.

Also, the University is in the process of studying another possible alignment. Putting the line farther north through Dinkytown would avoid Washington Avenue altogether.

Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, said the University-funded study will be considered if it meets the federal cost-effectiveness guidelines, although that would not guarantee the plan would change.

Bell said that Wednesday was a historic day, but planning is far from over.

“There is still more work to be done, particularly in regards to the University,” he said.