UMN V. LRT: The Final Round Begins

It's getting down to crunch time for the LRT v. UMN battle (Round 2 in the Great Minnesota Institutional Vanity Fest). Today's the day when the two sides, both ostensibly representing the Minnesota "public", need to have settled their dispute over where, and at what cost, the light rail will run through the University of Minnesota campus.

Today's paper carries this nice letter to the editor:
A Nov. 25 letter writer argues that the University of Minnesota is only acting responsibly in demanding mitigation to protect expensive lab equipment from the effects of light rail trains. But responsibility is a long-term effort, not a card that can be played just when it's convenient.

My copy of the 1993 Alternatives Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Central Corridor clearly shows a Washington Avenue alignment through the U of M campus.

Yet, for nearly 20 years, the U has located ever more costly lab equipment ever closer to Washington Avenue.

Perhaps the university was betting that light rail would never be built, in which case it lost. Or perhaps planners simply ignored those plans, in which case the University of Minnesota is guilty of poor planning. Or perhaps the U simply assumed that any mitigation was someone else's problem, in which case it is guilty of arrogance.

Yes, a light-rail tunnel was in the original plans, but surely planners at the U would have known that placing trains even closer to underground labs would have exacerbated the impact, making mitigation even more costly.

It's hard for me to understand why the Central Corridor project should bear all the costs of the mitigation necessary because of the University of Minnesota's lack of foresight.


Lack of foresight is just one of the ways that the U hasn't been a good citizen of the Twin Cities. John Dewitt joins a rather large chorus of U of MN critics. For example, there is this Strib editorial pointing out how late to the party the U has been in thinking about the impacts of the LRT. Or Adam Platt's op-ed pointing out the self-absorption involved for one taxpayer entity to sue another, and the rather outrageous list of University demands that includes loss of parking revenue and bureaucratic expenses. Or the Strib Editorial about State House Rep. Alice Hausman's efforts to force a compromise between these two public bodies, for the greater good of the state's planning efforts. (You'd think that the chair of the State House committee that funds a big part of the University's budget could get something done!)

[The soul-less design of the West Bank epitomizes the U's out-dated modernist planning mores.]

I've never been a fan of how the University of Minnesota designs and maintains its public space. The campus has a highly auto-dependent system of parking garages and anti-pedestrian roads (Washington Avenue, and the one-way streets on the North side of campus), seems committed to lifeless and defensible spaces like tunnels, skyways, and little-used green fields, intentionally separates itself from surrounding communities, and does very little to encourage biking to and from campus. In short, the U of MN acts as like its located in a college town, and doesn't do enough to be a part of the Twin Cities metro area. This latest fiasco, where the University may very well scuttle an urban transit project that is massively important for the region, only reinforces my impressions.

The general opinion on campus is that the University is "playing hardball" with the Met Council because it wants to get as much money as possible from the project. People say that UMN officials aren't happy with the steps that project coordinators have taken to mitigate problems involved with construction and vibration.

In my opinion, that's only partly true. The other part of the picture involves institutional arrogance. The University of Minnesota administration is deeply committed to the principle of its own importance. It touts its goal to be one of the "top 3 research institutions in the world", when its not even one of the top 3 research institutions in the Big 10. Administration officials make their name off of bringing in grant money, growing private/public research projects, and increasing institutional prestige. They don't really care about their role as part of the Twin Cities, or about something like growing regional transit ridership. (Note: They also go out of their way to bust grad student union efforts, cut general college access to needy students, and force high fees and tuition increases onto politically powerless students.) To the extent this LRT project interferes in any way with these larger research goals, even it the project is good for the region, it must be stopped.

Then there's the added hubris of the Met Council planning a street that runs through the University Campus in a way that conflicts with the U's own plans. For various reasons, the LRT proposal for Washington Avenue surely doesn't make the University "transportation and safety" department very happy.

I think that, for the administration, autonomy is more important than anything else. Its own institutional power is more important than the urban future of Saint Paul, or a real transit system that serves students and staff on campus. I can only hope that this gets resolved in the next few days, but when it comes to the University administration, I don't have a lot of hope.

[The too cool for school wins the chickie run as TC transit falls off the cliff of red tape.]


Anonymous said...

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