Wednesday, September 23, 2009

University lawsuit challenges St. Paul Central Corridor

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Fulfilling an option it has steadfastly maintained as an option, the University of Minnesota Tuesday filed suit against regional planning agency Metropolitan Council to protect what it says is delicate scientific research equipment from vibrations or electromagnetic interference feared from the 11-mile Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul.

The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, alleges the final environmental impact statement and related decisions about the project fail to address serious adverse effects the line will cause. "This action is being taken because we are simply not far enough along in reaching a solution to the very real challenges this light rail line poses for the University of Minnesota'score research mission," University President Bob Bruininks said in a statement. The university says 80 laboratory facilities in 17 buildings areclose enough to the LRT route to generate concern.

"This lawsuit does not preclude us from continuing to sit down with our project partners and work through the remaining issues to find scientifically effective solutions that will protect our research mission," Bruininks said, offering an olive branch.

But a statement issued by Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell suggests the council feels betrayed by the university's action. “The University lawsuit is premature and without merit. We believe their concerns about the project’s impacts on U research facilities and our plans to mitigate those impacts were adequately addressed inthe Final Environmental Impact Statement, as required by federal and state law. Moreover, the University is expecting a level of detail today that normallywould not be achieved in a project such as this until much later – when the project moves into the final design phase.

“We hope to receive federal approval to enter final design yet this fall and complete this work by the middle of next year, allowing us to secure federal funding and begin construction," Bell stated.

One Minneapolis observer familiar with the situation, reached by Railway Age for comment, said, “The U has known for nearly 20 years that light rail would likely use Washington Avenue and has continued to locatesensitive lab equipment close to the corridor. Is that arrogance or just poor planning? The tunnel originally planned would have placed trains even closer to underground labs.”

The statement by Metropolitan Council Chairman Bell also questions the timing of the university's renewed adversarial stance. “Over the past many months, the Council and our project partners have held numerous meetings with the University – before and since the FEIS was completed – to further develop mitigation plans that satisfy the University’s concerns while moving the project forward on time and within budget.  As recently as last week, all of our project partners – including the University – agreed that we have made substantial progress toward resolving many of the U’s issues,” Bell said.

“Unfortunately, the University once again felt compelled to get the lawyers involved, which we don’t believe is particularly helpful. If the U’s lawsuit delays the project schedule one year, inflationary adjustments alone would add at least $30 million to the project’s cost,” Bell said.

Modal bias also appears to blind the university, said the Minneapolis observer commenting to Railway Age; he asserted that the university’s “labs are better off with the removal of 25,000 cars/trucks a day from Washington Avenue,”should LRT be put in place, assuming the concerns over vibration were legitimate.