Getting the LRT through the U of M

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With the Metropolitan Council poised to make major decisions on Feb. 27 about the route and budget of the Central Corridor light-rail transit project, the University of Minnesota and surrounding neighborhoods are proposing alternatives — in some cases major changes — to how the line and existing traffic will move through, under or around the U of M’s East Bank campus.

The Met Council is pressed to meet federal deadlines and cost guidelines to qualify for the 50 percent matching federal funds that Met Council Chair Peter Bell has said are necessary to build the project; the current estimate is $150 million over that $840 million federal ceiling.

The Met Council’s timetable for the project calls for completing preliminary engineering by September, the application deadline for permission, from the Federal Transit Administration, to enter in to a final design phase in 2009. Construction is set to begin in 2010–2013, with service to start in 2014.

One expensive design element that could be eliminated on Feb. 27 is the proposed tunnel that would carry the Central Corridor beneath the U of M’s East Bank campus. The Met Council does not currently have a cost estimate for the entire tunnel, according to Laura Baenen, communications manager for the Central Corrdior LRT project, but the council did say in January that the cost to extend the tunnel to get around the new Gophers football stadium would run an extra $110–$130 million above and beyond their $990 million estimate for the whole project. (Met Council Chair Peter Bell has said the tunnel’s cost would be “more than $200 million.”) In contrast, a street-level route along Washington Avenue would save $128–$148 million, the Met Council says.

As for the campus crossing, University officials support the tunnel option, arguing that Washington Avenue is already congested with vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic, and that adding light rail would negatively affect safety, emergency access to university hospitals and the reliability and function of the light-rail line.

In December, the Metropolitan Council asked the university to draft traffic mitigation measures in response to the Met Council’s preference for the at-grade option. In response, the university has begun a three– to five–month study of a Dinkytown alternate route, or northern alignment, for the LRT, and campus-area traffic impact if traffic is taken off of Washington Avenue to make way for the line.

At a community meeting at the McNamara Alumni Center in late January, university officials presented preliminary mitigation plans, which could include creating a transit, pedestrian, bicycle mall on Washington Avenue; and diverting vehicle traffic around the campus. The approximately 40 neighborhood and business representatives at the meeting voiced concerns and their own ideas about the routing of trains and traffic.

“The university feels that transit is crucial for the growth and health of the university and the whole metropolitan region,” said Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien, the university’s representative on the Central Corridor Management Committee, which is chaired by Met Council Chair Bell. (The committee will meet on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 12–2:30 p.m., at Metropolitan Council Chambers, 390 Robert Street, in St. Paul, to be briefed on the options to be considered for the Feb. 27 decision. The meeting is open to the public.)

“We are dependent on transit,” O’Brien said, noting that 50,000 students, 20,000 faculty and staff, and another 10,000 visitors are on campus each day. A half a million people visit the university hospital and clinics in a year.

Washington Avenue is the main artery through campus, university officials pointed out at the meeting — a highway connection and a key link to downtown Minneapolis. Pedestrians and bicyclists use it heavily, the campus has 10 “rush hours” a day during class breaks and 10,000 pedestrians cross the street during lunch hour. The street also provides emergency access to the U hospital and the campus. In 2006, there were 45,315 emergency room visits.

The university argues that congestion on Washington Avenue would disrupt the light-rail schedule, travel time, bus connections, and therefore operation of the whole transit system.

How will the trains cross campus?

Although final decisions have yet to be made, the Central Corridor line is expected to run down University Avenue through Prospect Park, shift one block north to Southeast Fourth Street at 29th Avenue Southeast, then head west toward the TCF Gopher Stadium site, across the East Bank campus to the West Bank campus, finally merging with the Hiawatha LRT line west of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

University planners are studying three route options for the East Bank campus crossing—the tunnel, at-grade on Washington Avenue, and the northern alignment. The university has agreed to pay for the northern alignment study.

“The University of Minnesota strongly believes that a tunnel under Washington Avenue is the best option,” states the university in its 2008 Legislative session report, published Jan. 18.

At the January meeting, Bob Baker, director of the U of M’s parking and transportation services and the lead on the university’s light-rail project team, said a way to reduce the cost of a tunnel would be to design a shorter one. Costs could also be reduced if Washington Avenue is closed during the two years of construction, Baker said.

Speaking at a Jan. 28 meeting of the Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA), Gary Erickson, assistant project director for the Central Corridor’s design and engineering, said Met Council engineers are looking into proposing a “much less expensive” shorter tunnel under Washington Avenue, with an above-ground station at Coffman Union.

In the absence of a tunnel, the university recommends a “northern alignment,” running north of the East Bank campus, through the trench below Dinkytown, and across the river on either Bridge #9 (a former railroad bridge now used for bikes and pedestrians) or the 10th Avenue bridge.

Asked in mid-January about the possibility of a northern alignment, Baenen said that the Met Council would consider a non-Washington Avenue route if the university can “present a really compelling argument.

“If [the university] can show that the route will be cost effective … Met Council Chair Peter Bell has said it could change things,” said Baenen. She added, however, that an alternative route could delay the project a year and add $40 million in inflationary costs. Furthermore, the Met Council fears the non-Washington Avenue route would draw fewer riders, Baenen said.

“That’s what we mean by compelling,” said Banen. “Not only would it have to save a lot of money, but the ridership would have to be good.”

While the university supports the tunnel or realignment options, the current study will also investigate the options and costs to mitigate the LRT line’s affect on traffic rerouted from Washington Avenue, should the at-grade option be adopted. (For details, see related story here.)

Reactions and ideas from the neighbors

After the presentation of the various options at the January meeting, Baker’s call for comments was followed by a moment of silence. “Shock and awe?” he asked. Residents and business owners did respond with concerns about the options, as well as some suggestions of their own.

Referring to the possibility of the line crossing the Washington Avenue bridge, University District Improvement Association President Ron Lischeid questioned building what he called a “100-year project on a 50-year old bridge. “Why [wouldn’t we] use a brand new bridge built for light-rail,” Lischeid asked, in reference to the 35W bridge. “If I had to pick a bridge, the #9 Bridge makes more sense.”

Lischeid asked if the line could be elevated above Washington Avenue. Baker responded that an elevated line would cost about two-thirds the cost of a tunnel, but would create noise, vibration, and require additional maintenance.

Prospect Park resident Dick Gilyard asked what happens if the campus route issue isn’t resolved before the Met Council’s deadline of Feb. 27. “If we miss the cycle, we could lose a year and increase the project cost by $40 million due to inflation,” O’Brien said.

Southeast Business Association representative Michael McLaughlin raised a question about making light-rail decisions in the short-term, in light of the federal election cycle. “We could potentially have different federal guidelines in 18 to 24 months,” McLaughlin said. O’Brien commented that state rules could change too.

Marcy-Holmes responds

Melissa Bean, executive director of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) said in an interview after the meeting that several MHNA representatives support the northern alignment, using the Dinkytown railroad trench and Bridge #9 crossing.

Bean noted that some people at the meeting discussed a northerly route through Dinkytown to the new 35W bridge, using the Fourth Street and University Avenue one-way streets.

On Wednesday, Feb. 6, the MHNA Land Use Committee passed a resolution supporting the trench and Bridge #9 route, “if the Washington Avenue tunnel is not feasible,” with language opposing “any alternate route that uses Fourth Street Southeast and University Avenue Southeast through the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood.”

Speaking after the on-campus meeting, MHNA Land-Use Chair Jo Radzwill said she definitely didn’t like the idea of using the 10th Avenue bridge for the light-rail line. “It would force (neighborhood) people to get on the 35W bridge for a short distance. Bridge #9 would be optimal,” she said, depending on how the line connects to the bridge.

As for routing the light-rail line across the new 35W bridge, “It’s kind of crazy not to do it,” she said. “It’s crazy to spend money to rehab the Washington Avenue bridge, when the 35W bridge will be ready, “ she said.

Whether it runs on or under Washington Avenue, current plans are for the LRT line to cross the river on the, which would need reinforcing to bear the load.

Asked about the cost of reinforcing the 52-year-old Washington Avenue bridge, said Baenen said the Met Council has an old estimate: $25 million, $20 million of which is above and beyond the current $990 project-cost estimate. Preliminary engineering has not begun on the bridge reinforcement, she said.

At a Feb. 6 “listening session” at the Wesiman Art Museum, hosted by the Met Council, Marcy-Holmes resident Arvone Fraser submitted her own written comments on the issue. (She did not comment in her capacity as MHNA president.) Fraser supported the northern alternative, using either the LRT-ready 35W bridge or Bridge #9. She called the at-grade Washington Avenue option “dangerous and inefficient.” The closing of Washington Avenue “to all little but the LRT would also be disastrous,” she wrote. She also urged the Met Council to “take time to redesign a northern LRT route.

“As we learned from the bridge that fell down, it is better to do things right than rush or pretend that things are fine.”

You can read the Central Corridor project office’s account of the meeting here

Prospect Park and the mayor weigh in

The LRT route and related traffic were also a the topic of conversation at the Jan. 28 Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA) meeting.

One area resident who commutes across the Washington Avenue bridge warned against adding LRT to existing Washington Avenue traffic. “Take cars off Washington Avenue,” he said. “Don’t mix trains and cars. People will die.”

PPERRIA board member and former Ward Two City Council Member Paul Zerby called that scenario “a disaster waiting to happen, with students crossing.” A delay in the project to study alternatives “may be worth it,” said Zerby, who suggested that all the concerns point to the northerly route through Dinkytown.

Speaking on behalf of Mayor R.T Rybak, Peter Wagenius, a senior policy aide to the mayor and a resident of Prospect Park, told 50 people attending the meeting that the city wants to determine the best way to get the transit line through campus on Washington Avenue. Responding to Zerby’s comment, Wagenius argued that students wouldn’t want to walk further to a route through Dinkytown.

However, alternative solutions should be studied at the same time, Wagenius said, including the Dinkytown route. The study could be completed before the Met Council’s September deadline to submit engineering plans to the federal government, he said?

While the mayor is very aware of the need to reduce the project’s costs, “no one should assume that if the tunnel goes away, it will save $200 million,” Wagenius said.

Wagenius suggested that Granary Road, proposed to be rebuilt north of the Gopher stadium site, could reroute a significant amount of traffic around campus if traffic is removed from Washington Avenue. The university is also considering an expanded East River Road to reroute traffic, he said.

Wagenius said city officials would look at all the effects on neighborhood streets and work with U.S. Representatives James Oberstar and Keith Ellison to seek acceptable plans, “even if it can’t be paid for all at once. So, it’s not guaranteed to be a traffic disaster,” he said.

The Metro Council will hold a meeting to answer questions about the Central Corridor LRT station in Prospect Park on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 7–9 p.m. at St Frances Cabrini Church, 1500 Franklin Ave SE.

Metropolitan Council Central Corridor information is available at www.centralcorridor.org. University planning information is available at www.lightrail.umn.edu.

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