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Payola paves the path for LRT

Last week's decision to add three stations to the Central Corridor light rail line is yet one more example of the "build it at any price" mentality.

Planning for a rail connection between Minneapolis and St. Paul has been in the works for over 20 years. In the early 1990s, the major debate was over three options for the route. The three options were: University Avenue, the I-94 corridor or the existing rail lines a couple miles north of University Avenue.

Each proposed option had its pluses and minuses, but in the end, the University Avenue plan won out. Once the route was chosen and the design implemented, it would be just a matter of time before trains would rumble down University Avenue -- just like the street cars did in the 1920s. With any luck on the part of Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, light rail trains will be rolling down the avenue again by 2014.

The question is, at what price? Last week's decision to add stations at Hamline Avenue, Victoria Street and Western Avenue came shortly after a lawsuit was filed by a group of African-American residents and business owners, which included as one of its demands the inclusion of the additional stations. While plaintiffs insist they will proceed with the lawsuit, the addition of the three stations does address one of their major concerns.

However, the cost of the three stations will add $15.6 million and boost the total estimated cost of the project above $950 million.

Looking back to the cost of the first light rail line in the Twin Cities, the Hiawatha route, costs skyrocketed by 60 percent between the first approval for construction and completion of the project. If the same is true for the Central Corridor line, which has the same project manager, total costs could rise above $1.5 billion, or a whopping $135 million per mile.

These staggering costs, however, have not deterred the gusto with which Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter "we are going to build it" Bell proceeds.

Just a year ago, the Central Corridor LRT route was being challenged by yet another unlikely group, Minnesota Public Radio. MPR's concern was that as the 50-ton trains rumble past their studios on Cedar Street, they would interfere with delicate recording equipment. The battle over the sound issue waged on, threatening to derail the train, but in the end, "build it Bell" came up with enough dough to deaden the noise issue for MPR.

Another major cost that was quietly slipped into the project was the $56 million to reconstruct the Washington Avenue Bridge. The project will essentially create a new bridge by replacing the main decks and installing four new trusses. Of the $56 million bridge reconstruction costs, $26 million will be paid by the state and $30 million will come from "Central Corridor funding;" -- just another $26 million from state taxpayers for the "build it Bell" project.As the State now pushes for final Federal funding approval, "build it Bell" has one more major obstacle to overcome.

Another unlikely entity has entered the fray, the University of Minnesota.

The U of M has filed a lawsuit over the potential disruption of very sensitive and very expensive scientific testing equipment located close to the route on Washington Avenue. The interference that could occur with the trains passing in close proximity to the testing equipment is a major concern for the University. While "build it Bell" hasn't found a solution for this issue to date, I'm sure it is only a matter of money, taxpayer money.

With the number of lawsuits increasing, so are the costs of the project.

However, a recent decision by the Federal Transit Administration has gutted the "cost effectiveness standards" which has in turn allowed the inclusion of the three additional stations. With the "cost effectiveness standards" all but gone, there will be no cap on the total project costs.

For "build it Bell" there are only a couple of hurdles remaining to clear before the project receives final approval from the Feds, and with his "buy off the oppos-ition approach," it is just a matter of time and money -- before we hear the ring, ring, ring of the trolley on University Avenue.

Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.