Even as orange barrels and multi colored paint were placed in downtown St. Paul last week, marking some of the first visible work on the Central Corridor light rail line, the University of Minnesota is not yet ready to have construction begin on campus.
In the next few weeks, a University team led by Timothy Mulcahy, vice president for research, will present recommendations to President Bob Bruininks on how to proceed with mitigating the impacts of the Central Corridor.
The report will combine the expert opinions of both the Metropolitan Council and the University on how to alleviate vibrations and noise from the line that could impact 80 research labs in 17 buildings along Washington Avenue.
When the line is completed, it will connect downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis via University and Washington Avenues.
The University, in conjunction with the Met Council and surrounding cities and counties, published a memorandum of understanding last summer which forged an agreement on issues such as traffic and parking solutions, the location of light rail stations and the design of the pedestrian mall. However, the agreement came only after losing a battle to have the line run in a tunnel directly underneath Washington Avenue.
“This is a resource that has been built with public dollars over decades,” Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of University Services said of the research buildings, adding that the labs are used by not only the University, but other colleges and several of the University’s business partners.
“They are doing research on everything from curing cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer’s [disease] … a spectrum of the critical issues facing our time,” O’Brien said.
From hiring experts, consultants and putting in faculty hours and services, O’Brien said the University has spent nearly $2 million on the Central Corridor over the last several years.
That doesn’t include the cost of moving the University’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab, which officials say cannot stay near the line as it will impact the facilities sensitive research equipment.
Estimates for moving the facility are anywhere between $10 and $20 million, Beverly Ostrowski, facilities manager at the NMR lab , said.
Lab officials are seeking funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to move the lab to either the Mayo Memorial Building parkin g garage or to the new biomedical sciences buildings.
Ostrowski said she expects a decision from NIH in October, but even if the funds come through, she said it’s still important that the University and the Central Corridor come up with a working mitigation plan.
“There are more than $100 million in NIH funding dependent on University research facilities, and the proposed Mayo relocation is still near the street,” Ostrowski said. “It’s incredibly important that the Central Corridor mitigation still goes through, not just for the NMR lab.”
While the University has been in these negotiations for about 14 months, the University’s President of Parking and Transportation Services, Bob Baker , who is also chair of the University’s work group with the Central Corridor, said that other universities have taken much longer to negotiate light rail lines, including the four-year mitigation of a light rail line at the University of Washington.
“There is no blueprint on how to solve these issues,” he said. “The situations are different in every location.”
Second Ward councilman Cam Gordon said that he was initially disappointed that the University decided to seek mitigation plans so late, and said he wishes the University, city and county could have worked together earlier to prevent these negotiations from stalling the project.
Time is money for the Met Council, which fears a large inflationary price tag could come along with delaying the project.
Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld , said he understands the University’s concerns for their research institutions, but there is not much “give” in the projects schedule.
The final environmental impact statement on the Central Corridor has been published, and the Met Council hopes the Federal Transit Administration will publish their response to the statement by the end of the month.
Following that, the project is hoping to get a full funding grant agreement from the federal government — which would fund half of the $915 million line — by the spring of 2010 and start construction in the summer.
The University is also reviewing the recently completed environmental impact statement on the line, and expects to have an opinion on it after the public comment period is over near the end of July.
But O’Brien said she still hopes to bring negotiations with the Central Corridor project office to a close within the next four to five months, adding that the University supports transit.
“The University would produce the largest ridership of the line and we are strong business partners with Metro Transit,” she said. “It’s a risk and a challenge, and we need help from all of our partners to get this solved.”