Insiders ponder cost of underground transit

The proposed tunnel would be costly, but it might be the safest option for the University.

Charley Bruce

The Central Corridor light-rail transit line is about $130 million too expensive, and while planners say the tunnel planned to run beneath Washington Avenue Southeast is the biggest hunk, the University is doubtful.

The cost of the project is estimated at $932 million, but the total bill needs to be around $800 million to be eligible for federal funding. One of the highest projected costs is the $155 million tunnel that would run below the major campus thoroughfare.

Local stakeholders said the tunnel is the best way to ensure pedestrian safety.

Bob Baker, who chairs the University’s staff team for light-rail transit, said it’s too early in the planning stages to accurately gauge costs.

“I think people put out numbers because they are pressured into throwing numbers out,” Baker said. “They’re as good as the paper they’re written on.”

Baker, who is also the executive director of Parking and Transportation Services, said DMJM Harris, the consulting firm hired to study the corridor costs, estimated more than four years ago that a tunnel would cost $40 million.

“I’m not going to accept the fact that it’s going to be $155 million for the University tunnel until we’ve gone through preliminary engineering,” Baker said.

Baker said he believes a tunnel is the best option for the University area because of the high volume of traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists, emergency vehicles and patients from the Fairview-University Health Center.

The University is a strong advocate for the project but wants the safest line for the area, he said.

Metro Transit deputy general manager Mark Fuhrmann said the alternative to a tunnel is at-grade rails.

He said he believes this would be cheaper, but cost estimates could change with preliminary engineering.

Fuhrmann said the Metropolitan Council is researching whether a tunnel would provide better safety.

He said they’re looking at safety statistics for light-rail transit from other North American lines that serve urban universities.

“The University of Toronto resides along the Spadina line of the Toronto streetcar system, and they have a daytime student population of 60,000,” Fuhrmann said. “Safety has not really been an issue and that train has been operating for a couple of decades.”

Jim Rosvold, president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association, said the best option for the proposed light-rail line is a tunnel no matter the cost.

“If we’re going to spend the money, let’s get it right,” Rosvold said.

He said the line has to run underground to avoid complete gridlock on Washington Avenue.

Rosvold said it would be impossible to shift traffic north or south from Washington Avenue.

“It’s better to suffer for a few months than to suffer long term,” he said.

Rosvold expects the construction will disrupt his business with or without a tunnel.

“I’ve made jokes about the pizza catapult, to throw pizzas across the street to get them to people,” Rosvold said.

Second Ward Councilman Cam Gordon supports a tunnel both for street safety and travel time.

“I do think the tunnel offers great advantages,” he said. “We should make the investment in the best line possible.”

Gordon said he doesn’t like the way the Met Council is pitting one neighborhood along the line against another; communities might have to sacrifice something so that other communities can benefit.

“There’s all this pressure to cut costs right from the get-go,” Gordon said, instead of encouraging the groups to work together for the best line possible.