Light-rail construction crashes into University research

Maureen Landsverk

Transportation is a necessary evil of todayâÄôs society. In a world so dependent on technological advancement, the convenience of narrowing the distance between points A and B is more crucial than ever. Even so, the detrimental effect on both our environment and our wallets is blatantly obvious. The light rail, a popular, more affordable mode of transportation for many Twin Cities residents, has run up against a brick wall âÄî four, in fact âÄî at the University of Minnesota. On Tuesday, Sept. 22, the University sued the Metropolitan Council in Hennepin County District Court. Grounds for the lawsuit include environmental harm and disruption of the UniversityâÄôs research projects near the proposed rail line. One week later, at the Sept. 29 Forum meeting, the Minnesota Student Association passed a position statement underscoring studentsâÄô solidarity with administration on the light-rail mitigation demands. According to the Associated Press, problems with the plan to create a light-rail line through the UniversityâÄôs East Bank down Washington Avenue arose as early as the beginning of this year. In January of 2009, University President Robert Bruininks commissioned a faculty committee of medical and engineering professors to assess the safety of building a light rail in the planned location. The final committee report released in July cited problems with the new rail line, also called the Central Corridor line, highlighting the potential harm the track could cause to the 80 laboratories along the projected 11-mile line. Electromagnetic interference and vibrations from passing trains powered by electrical wires 16 feet overhead is the UniversityâÄôs main concern. However, the report also gave suggestions on lessening the impact of electrical obstruction by installing a separate concrete cushion along the rail line, or using batteries to power trains when on campus. The current light-rail line, which opened in 2004, serves commuters between three major destinations in the Twin Cities: downtown Minneapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. The new rail line is designed to connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul, a route the Metropolitan Council says would make intercity travel faster and more efficient than the Route 16 bus line. But would it? A statement issued by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) in 2001 addressed bus rapid transit (BRT) versus light-rail travel by confirming economist John KainâÄôs conclusion that BRT is more cost-effective. Besides being 3.7 times more expensive to build, the GAO report divulged another alarming statistic: âÄúLight-rail operating costs per passenger mile are nearly 50 percent higher than that of BRT.âÄù Further comparison by the GAO revealed speed averages favored bus transport: âÄúGAO found the average LRT operating speed to be 16.8 miles per hour. BRT was nearly double that, at 32.2 miles per hour.âÄù As far as pay rates go, the fares for bus and light-rail rides are identical. Shockingly, neither the University nor the Met Council believes that the lawsuit filed Tuesday will stop production of the line, of which construction is scheduled to begin in 2010 with the light-rail line being operational in 2014. Chairman of the Metropolitan Council, Peter Bell, expressed relative apathy towards the UniversityâÄôs action, saying the suit has âÄúpotential to disrupt the timetable.âÄù However, he remains confident in the CouncilâÄôs eventual success, saying, âÄúthis is not a showstopper.âÄù Nevertheless, Bruininks has not broken with his claim that installing a light-rail line as close as 70 feet from high-sensitivity research buildings will seriously handicap the UniversityâÄôs âÄúcore research mission.âÄù The UniversityâÄôs research programs are widely recognized, and generate a profit of $100 million annually, according to the Star Tribune. Among the many research instruments that would be vulnerable to the lineâÄôs electromagnetic interference is the nuclear magnetic spectrometer in Hasselmo Hall. It is located on Church Street, which would intersect with the new light-rail line. In the UniversityâÄôs lawsuit, it cited the Hasselmo Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facilityâÄôs function as a primary concern, as the center conducts research that produces and discovers treatments related to numerous medical conditions, including AIDS, cancer, paralysis and diabetes. The University has concluded that the new light-rail line would cause unnecessary and immeasurable damage to the facility, adding that its research âÄúrequires that the existing environmental condition in the vicinity of Hasselmo Hall be maintained.âÄù Through the deduction of hired experts and employed professors, the University has decided to waylay the construction of the light-rail line until satisfactory negotiations can be reached. In light of the proposalâÄôs obvious detrimental effects, the University has made a wise choice in defending and protecting the interests of its public research efforts. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]