17.12.09

University of Minnesota still holding up LRT over mitigation money

[Students wait for buses in the cold winter along Washington Avenue's busy traffic.]

Here are some meeting notes from the University's Faculty Senate Finance Committee, detailing the current University position on the Light Rail lawsuit. Compared to the hyperbolic language of the lawsuit, the University seems to have a far more reasonable position in its internal discussions. Apparently the main sticking point is about who will pay for ongoing monitoring of vibration and magnetic interference while the line is in operation.


Light-Rail Transit (LRT)

Professor Luepker convened the meeting at 2:05 and welcomed Mr. Berthelsen and Ms. Fiske to discuss facilities issues, but turned first to Vice President O'Brien for an update on light-rail transit (LRT).

Vice President O'Brien noted that this Committee has discussed LRT many times over the last several years; the University is now at a sensitive point in negotiations with the Metropolitan Council. Last August the Council approved the environmental impact statement, which allowed work to start in downtown St. Paul. That action started the clock ticking, under state law: Within 30 days the University had to support the statement or take legal action to protect its interests (federal law allows 180 days). Because no agreement had been reached about mitigation sufficient to protect the University's research, the University filed suit.

At this point nothing is happening with the lawsuit. The Metropolitan Council has filed action to dismiss the lawsuit; that motion will be heard on December 10 in Hennepin County court, but there will likely be no decision until early in the year.

The University has used three sources of information to evaluate the protection needed for its research from electro-magnetic fields and vibration. One is a consultant's report from experts on light rail, another is a faculty committee chaired by Vice President Mulcahy that included faculty experts, and the third is a study of research universities around the country that have dealt with light-rail issues. (The University of Minnesota is not unique as a research university in having to deal with light rail.)

With respect to other issues—the pedestrian mall, traffic interchanges, land easement—there is agreement. The remaining debate is about mitigation—protection of University research labs and equipment. The faculty experts say there are technical solutions to the vibration and electro-magnetic interference problems. In terms of vibration, the University needs the LRT to meet specific performance standards and the LRT has to be built, tested, and corrected to meet these performance standards. In terms of electro-magnetic interference, the labs can function if they are outside a corridor approximately 100 feet wide on either side of the tracks. Most of the labs of concern are outside that corridor; those that are not will have to be moved or have protective equipment installed. The University has established a committee composed of associate deans and faculty to work with the faculty and the labs as construction takes place.

Will the Metropolitan Council agree to the standards of correction that the University seeks? Vice President O'Brien said it is likely it will agree to the testing but it is reticent about monitoring. The University believes monitoring is essential in order to keep the labs working and also to determine what happens if the standards are not met. If there is a documented exceedance of standards, remedies would be pursued, with consequences to ensure timely correction.

The Board of Regents is resolute in their protection of research at the University, Vice President O'Brien reported, and believes it is possible to both promote mass transit and protect the University's research.

Professor Chapman asked if the Metropolitan Council budget for the project includes funds for mitigation. It does, Ms. O'Brien said. Then what is the argument about, Professor Chapman asked? The Council does not have funds for monitoring, Ms. O'Brien said, and is hesitant to commit to the performance standards and the remedies for consequences.

Professor Seashore said that LRT has been a public-relations disaster for the University and that outside groups believe the University is making unreasonable demands. She is involved with transit-equity groups and the information the University has made available has not made a dent compared to what the Metropolitan Council is putting out. Is there a way the University can be more aggressive? There have been unanswered accusations in the press, and while the University could "win" on the scientific and technical arguments, it would still engender the public perception that the University does not care about poor people.
University Relations needs to take this more seriously. The University's
responses thus far have been measured, but at some point the gloves need
to come off in the public arena. The lawsuit is being portrayed as a
lawsuit against poor people.

Mr. Driscoll said that as someone who lives along the LRT corridor and would use it, he would like to see the project completed. He agreed with Professor Seashore and said that this is the first time since he's been at the University that he has heard the University's position explained in a reasonable way and had not been talked down to. He said he understood that the University has reached out to graduate students in the affected labs and said it would be a good idea to have them talk about the effects of LRT on their research. Vice President O'Brien said there have been about two dozen people working on the issues over the last few years and they have been collecting information from people in the labs.

Mr. Erikson asked if there has been any examination of the cost of mitigation if there are unwanted effects after initial mitigation has been done. What would it cost to move the research? Those specifics would be interesting for the public to know. Mr. Driscoll added that knowing such figures would help him better understand the University's position, both as a Committee member and a member of the community. They have presented some stories, Vice President O'Brien said; there are 80 labs in 17 buildings with highly-sensitive equipment. The fields of research in these labs are in three broad categories: health-related (treatments and cures), renewable energy, and eco-nanotechnology. That research is not solely the University's; there are other research institutions and about 160 businesses involved in much of it. Washington
Avenue truly is Minnesota's research corridor. She said she can ask Vice President Mulcahy to bring some of the stories to the Committee, if it wishes. Bring them to the media as well, Mr. Erikson suggested; the public needs to know that the University's concerns are valid and that the research has broad and important implications.

Professor Olin asked if the tracks would be fenced for safety reasons. There will be hedges with a metal fence 42 inches high so people do not run through them, Vice President O'Brien explained.

Ms. Stahre asked if the Washington Avenue Bridge can handle LRT trains, a concern given that there has already been one bridge collapse in the Twin Cities. Does the University own the bridge? It does not, Ms. O'Brien said; Hennepin County owns it and will retain ownership, although the University maintains the pedestrian deck. The bridge will be one-half open during construction (one side and then the other), including the pedestrian deck. The bridge will be strengthened to accommodate LRT trains.

Professor Konstan suggested that the Committee consider how the University manages public relations risks as a future agenda item. He reflected that it seemed that earlier in the process the University had to make decisions about whether to "move forward" on this project trusting that important issues would be solved later versus appearing too obstructionist. As the project gains momentum, though, it becomes too easy to be seen as "in the way" and to get run over in the process. He thought it would be helpful to hear from University Relations as well as the University's risk management people on how (and where in the chain of authority) decisions are made about where to expend the University's political capital and good will. He said he meant such a discussion to start with LRT, but to understand it more generally (since it is a similar issue with Stadium, labor relations, etc.). His concern, he said, is that there may not be someone "in the loop" who is actually both watching out for the risk to the University and knowledgeable about how those risks play out in public relations.

Vice President O'Brien noted the University's Board of Regents 2001 resolution has guided the University's policy position: first, the preferred route is the northern alignment; second, if the CCLRT line was on Washington Avenue through the campus it be underground; and third, if the CCLRT alignment moves to at-grade on Washington Avenue, that traffic be removed.

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