University of Minnesota Wants More Mitigation for Central Corridor LRT

Twin Cities Central CorridorProposed “floating slab” is claimed necessary to protect lab space.

When it’s completed in five years, the Central Corridor will connect downtown Minneapolis with the state capital 11 miles down the road in St. Paul, and it’s expected to become the Twin Cities’ most popular transit line. But opposition from prominent landholders along the route — including the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio — continues to challenge the project proponents’ contention that they will be able to maintain reasonable completion costs.

A little more than five years ago, Minneapolis opened its Hiawatha Light Rail line to great acclaim, and the project has been very successful. So much so, in fact, that the Metro Council, which directs transportation expenditures in the Twin Cities and the surrounding region, is currently extending station platforms along the line to support three-car trains.

You would think, then, that the completion of the area’s next major transit project couldn’t come soon enough. Indeed, the Central Corridor will be one of the most exciting new public transportation lines in the country when it opens in 2014, as long as the Federal Transit Administration commits to federal aid this year or next. It’s expected to attract more than 40,000 riders a day by 2030. At a cost of $914 million for the line, the program is at the middle of the pack in construction costs.

Yet the Central Corridor has been mired in controversy since serious planning began in 2001. For years, the University of Minnesota argued that it wouldn’t allow trains down Washington Avenue through the center of campus unless they were placed in a tunnel. Problem is, that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project’s cost and the University wasn’t willing to chip in. Alternative routings were cumbersome and would poorly serve the student population.

Homeowners and business groups along University Avenue, the principal section of the line, complained that it would increase noise, reduce parking spaces, and hamper retail activity. They argued that the system wouldn’t have enough stops to serve the community adequately.

Meanwhile, in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota Public Radio and other groups along Cedar Street claimed that light rail operations will cause vibrations that make work there impossible. Note that MPR moved into its offices after planning had begun on the project.

These, among others, are some of the hurdles typically faced by transit planners, who find that providing better transportation to a community isn’t as simple as building the line. In some cases, staff at the Met Council have agreed to changes — they’re planning to install what’s known as a “floating slab track” on Cedar Street to make sure that MPR’s nationally-syndicated broadcasts aren’t negatively affected. They’ve committed to adding more stops on University Avenues if they can find the funds. And the area of Washington Avenue in the midst of campus activities at the University will be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly transit mall.

Still, some want more. The University now suggests that the floating slab should be installed on Washington Avenue as well, since it has research facilities there. But the Met Council hadn’t planned on the technology and therefore would have to commit millions more to design and implementation. More importantly, light rail running on tracks without the expensive floating slab would produce less vibration than some existing construction activities on campus. If the sensitive research can be performed with that going on, what difference would a light rail system make?

Central Corridor will eventually be built, and the University of Minnesota will likely come to see the line as an integral part of campus life. The same will probably be said of the people living along University Avenue and those working on Cedar. But the Met Council has to survive months more of these relatively serious demands for mitigation before it will be able to start construction. It will probably have to agree to pay for some improvements, which will either mean a reduced ability to compete for competitive federal New Start funds or decreased quality of stations and services along the rest of the line.

The Twin Cities aren’t alone in facing the community demands placed on public sector infrastructure projects. Since the devastating consequences of urban renewal and inner-city highway construction became all too clear, neighborhoods have been ensuring that their best interests are being represented. That usually means strong opposition to projects such as this, even though the benefits likely to arise from improved public transportation are manifold. It also means that when a project can’t be stopped, people expect some form of payback, usually in the form of expensive compensation. Ultimately, that increases construction costs and lower trust in the ability of government to get estimates right the first time. Such are the costs of infrastructure creation today.

Image above: Central Corridor map, from Metro Council

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Anders

    … and apologies for the HTML glitch above. This is why I’m a fan of the “Preview” button!

  • I think the University is being overly meticulous in the pursuit of avoiding any disruptions to its research labs. It has failed to provide quantifiable noise and vibration standards (at least to my knowledge) and is now on the verge of stalling a project which has been in the planning stages for a long time without having pursued a solution as soon as it found out that the decision to convert Washington Avenue to a transit mall was made.

    There are countless other universities with rail systems running through them (although I don’t know which have sensitive equipment nearby), I can easily think of:
    MIT and Harvard – Boston’s Red Line
    UC Berkeley – BART
    Temple University – Philadelphia’s Broad St Line
    DePaul University – Chicago’s Red/Brown/Purple Lines
    NYU, Columbia, Hunter College, etc – NYC subway
    Washington University – St Louis Metrolink
    … and others

    Furthermore, although this is a guess, I’m assuming that UC Berkeley and Washington University both had research equipment before BART and Metrolink light rail were put in. It would be essential to study how they dealt with the impacts of rail transit on their research facilities, and whether a floating slab was needed or not.

  • Cameron Slick

    First off, the routing of the Central Corridor should never have gone through Washington Avenue. While a tunnel would have solved the vibration issue, this line should not cross on the Washington Avenue bridge. Built in 1961 for automobile traffic, it is not suitable, no matter what we are told about strengthening the piers, for the weight and vibrations of frequent light rail trains..

    This route should have taken the “Northern Alignment” through Dinkytown, either through the railroad corridor or on 4th Street/University, and crossed on the new I-35W bridge (you know, the one that replaced the one that collapsed), Northern Pacific No. 9 bridge, or Hennepin Avenue bridge. While this corridor was cheaper to build and actually came close in ridership, the Cost-Effectiveness Index is sensitive to distance, and it lost out. For 30 years, the University of Minnesota has advocated for a tunnel under Washington Avenue, and immediately switched gears toward a northern alignment once the tunnel plan was scrapped.

    This floating slab concept is also being used to mitigate noise and vibration issues at MPR and two churches on Cedar Street in St. Paul. I really don’t know anything about the EMI thing, though.

  • MPR is throwing a fit about this? Goddamn liberals, I just don’t know what to think. If WNYC in New York can set up a brand-new studio on top of a four-track subway line, these guys have no excuse. Can we get Garrison Keillor to set them straight?

  • Sorry, that link about the studio should have been to this page. But the poll results are worth a read.

  • Dan Berez

    MIT has signaled that it will attempt to block Boston’s Urban Ring project because they believe it will interfere with some new research lab they have constructed near the Grand Junction Railroad.

    In cases like MIT or the University of Minnesota, or even a case such as Palo Alto and CA HSR, the parties in opposition to the plan should be responsible for paying to research alternatives and in most cases, find the funding to pay for these alternatives. There is no point in curbing an entire project just because a single group is against it.

  • EngineerScotty

    Light rail will cause vibrations sufficient to scupper a radio station?

    Gimme. A. Break.

    I can think of lots of places where radio and TV facilities are located in close proximity to light rail, heavy rail, or freeways for that matter. Isolating a studio from exterior noise is well within the reach of acoustics engineers–if anything should be done, it would seem that improving the acoustical isolation of the studio would be the correct solution.

    If the line were running next to the Mayo Clinic operating room, there might be concern for vibrations affecting surgical procedures–construction of the Portland Aerial Tram was considerably more expensive than your average ski lift tram due to this issue (the tram connects directly to OHSU Hospital).

    But a radio station? Do they have an engineer’s opinion that LRT would disrupt station operations? Sounds fishy.

  • STL Transplant

    Similar to the Central Corridor, the “Cross County Extension” of St. Louis MetroLink also linked that Midwestern region’s two primary central business districts, Downtown St. Louis and Clayton, via Washington University. But while the starter alignment (also to the airport akin to Hiawatha) only cost $20 million a mile, the “Cross County” branch extension ended up costing $80 million a mile. No doubt, in part, due to building tunnels along Washington University. Hopefully, Minneapolis doesn’t make the same mistake.

  • Cameron Slick

    To Cap’n Transit & Engineer Scotty,

    MPR and the U of Mn are not throwing fits. Their concerns are completely legitimate, because when 795,000 lbs of trains come by every 3 minutes, it vibrates, and it can screw things up.

    After a project (rail, highway, etc.) is built, any new broadcast studios and laboratories will take the effects into account when they’re under construction, just like if you build a studio on a four-track subway or next to an airport. However, the University was banking and supporting a tunnel under Washington Avenue, or alternatively, an alignment in a nearly-abandoned railroad.

    This is entirely the fault of the Metropolitan Council, for sticking with the Washington Avenue routing, and using the Cedar Street routing in St. Paul, when the city wanted a one-way loop. The latter had a few disadvantages, but both were uncontroversial and would have required very little mitigation.

  • Using the route that gets the most ridership is not the “fault” of anyone at the Met Council. None of this would be an issue if the Cost Effectiveness measure wasn’t so damn stringent.

  • BLambert

    @Cameron

    Here in Oslo, the SL95 cars are 65 tons. That’s 130,000 pounds. From what I’ve seen of tram systems in Hannover, Amsterdam, etc., this is a rather normal size, and supposably weight. The 795,000 pounds you mention is in the neighborhood of 400 tons, comes in at 3 times that. I’m wondering where you get this number from.

  • Cameron, I invite you and the delicate flowers at MPR to look at the headquarters of Radio France in Paris. See the elevated heavy commuter rail tracks passing a few hundred feet from the building?

  • EngineerScotty

    I was wondering the same thing–I seriously doubt that the proposed Minnesota line will be running six-car trains (that’s how many LRT vehicles are needed for 400 tons) at three-minute headways.

  • Nathanael

    The U of M has been full of BS from beginning to end.

    All these “sensitive” labs are perfectly happy to operate next to huge university-run construction projects generating immense vibrations. Which are constant; the university *always* has construction going on. But noooo, a track which is already vibration-reduced and will produce less vibrations, that’s just too much.

    If any of their labs are *really* sensitive, they can move them. To a rural area with no cars or other urban sources of vibration nearby at all. Perhaps somewhere between Minneapolis and Duluth.

    I hope the board of the U of M gets hate mail from its own students.

  • Nathanael

    “MPR and the U of Mn are not throwing fits. Their concerns are completely legitimate, because when 795,000 lbs of trains come by every 3 minutes, it vibrates, and it can screw things up.”

    Like the constant construciton which the U of Mn does on its own behalf. No, sorry, they sabotaged their own argument by making more vibrations than the rail line, on their own, in advance.

  • Cameron Slick

    3-car train, duh.

  • Cameron Slick

    Scott & Capn,

    They aren’t six car trains every three minutes, they’re three-car trains every 7 1/2 minutes, each direction.

    The only thing that University was ever full of shit on was endorsing a tunnel that “leads” to a bridge that will need to be replaced by 2030. Given that this line could open in 2014, that means only 16 years of continuous operation before that bridge is in danger of collapsing. It happened two years ago this Saturday, and it could happen again, since Minnesota’s got Ayatollah Pawlenty as governor.

    Any comparison to road construction is not wholly fair because the vibrations are not continual, day-after-day, year-after-year.
    The point I’ve tried to make is not just for the university labs and the MPR studios, which are both state-of-the-art, but also for century-old churches, like two on Cedar Street next to MPR, which will see their foundations shaken and moved if not for a floating slab.

    Of course, any new buildings on Washington Avenue SE in Minneapolis or Cedar Street in St. Paul will not be eligible for vibration mitigation because they will know full well the impact of light rail trains. Radio France knew this when they built the RER.

    Comparisons to subways or elevated trains are not really fair since the foundations of the pillars or tunnels absorb a huge deal of the vibrations.

    The cost of mitigating MPR and the University could have easily been avoid at the MetCouncil recognized them in the DEIS stage, whereas a one-way loop in St. Paul and the railroad corridor abutting the University would have been less costly in construction and would have required nearly no mitigation.

    As a student at the University of Minnesota that understands well the geography, history, and habits of students, the northern alignment would have had nearly no impact whatsoever on student commuting, and would have provided a better station (Dinkytown, as opposed to East Bank) for commerce.

    I look forward to hearing more.

  • Columbia has science buildings right next to the 1 train, including chemistry and physics labs. It plans to redevelop (read: raze and rebuild) an area further to the north lying next to an elevated section of the subway.

    Princeton has the Dinky, a heavy commuter train stopping right in the middle of campus.

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