U of M signs off on central LRT plans

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At its June 13 meeting, University of Minnesota Board of Regents approved a proposal for the Central Corridor light rail route that will run at gound level through its campus. University officials had pushed for an underground route for the train beneath Washington Avenue, and when that was abandoned for budget considerations, regents had held out for an optional route that would go around campus through Dinkytown, the “northern alignment” route.

“We studied three feasible alternatives for the Central Corridor as it crosses the campus: a Washington Avenue tunnel, a northern alignment using the existing railway through Dinkytown, and the Washington Avenue at-grade alternative with mitigation,” U of M President Robert Bruininks said through Unversity news services. “We never ruled out any of these alternatives, but advocated for thorough study of all feasible options. The Northern Alignment study was authorized in March, completed in preliminary form in April, and revised in May. We now have the information we were seeking,” Bruininks said.

Often viewed as the spoiler in negotiations among state, county and municipal partners hammering out finalized light rail design plans, the University says that it has remained constant in keeping the best interests of the larger community—along with best interests for its future and the future for its student body—in mind.

“We’ve been somewhat surprised by the reaction to our concerns,” said University media spokeman Dan Wolter. “We haven’t changed our position on the light rail since 2001.”

Minneapolis Metropolitan Council had also rejected the northern alignment option because like the proposal for tunneling under Washingtion Avenue, it would put project costs beyond what the federal government would allow in order to qualify for $450 million in funding from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. The state Legislature was able to guarantee $70 million in state bonding for the light rail project only after an arm-twisting negotiation by Gov. Pawlenty at the end of this year’s session.

Mitigating its approval for the street-level route through its campus, University regents signed a “memorandum of understanding”on $27 million for reconstructing traffic routes, including $11.1 million for converting Washington Ave. into a transit/pedestrian mall. The memorandum also called for $5.1 million for East Bank campus area street connections and funding for modifying some intersections. In addition to Central Corridor project funding, the University, Met Council, City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and its regional railroad authority agreed to seek funding for transportaion improvements that fall outside the scope of the project.

According to the Unversity, resolution of light rail plans will now mean that it can direct its efforts and staff time to the pursuit of the Washington Avenue street-level alignment and budget adjustments to address a $6.15 million cut to the University’s state appropriations for the current and coming fiscal years. The U of M’s fiscal 2009 budget includes a 7.25 percent tuition increase for undergraduate students (down from 7.5 percent projected a year ago), and a 3.25 percent increase to compensation.

The Board’s decisions to go forward with the Washington Avenue route and subsequent budget adjustments are said to be critical to positioning the University for what Bruininks calls “an uncertain future.”

In other Central Corridor news, the Met Council announced that a study has shown that traffic delays would increase greatly and 10 intersections would fail during the afternoon peak period if, as part of the train route design, University Avenue would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction. The study, requested by the City of St. Paul, hoped to determine if traffic flow would be greatly restricted if bicycle lanes were added, sidewalk width increased or on-street parking was retained. According to the Met, the analysis found there would be significant vehicle back ups and delays at intersections and average travel speed for the afternoon peak hour would be reduced from 18 to 5 mph eastbound and from 19 to 10 mph westbound. Besides 10 intersections failing, three others would become, according to the study, “marginally functional” in the afternoon peak hour.

The elimination of parking on Unversity Avenue continues a hot debate between light rail planners and area residents and businesses over where parking space will be found for commuters taking the train.

“Where I think most people have missed the boat in this equation is that the City of St. Paul has already identified 20,000 parking spots on cross streets on University Avenue,” said Central Corridor LRT Media Contact Laura Baenen. With the addition of parking restrictions made to residential streets and alternative transportation available to reach train depots, those who live and work along University Avenue shouldn’t be put out, according to the Met.

“We want people to use the bus,” said Baenen.