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Minn. light rail may force lab to move

Eric Perkins, a nuclear magnetic resonance scientist, works in a University of Minnesota research lab that may have to be moved because it is just 70 feet from where the planned Central Corridor light rail tracks are to be built. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

Eric Perkins, a nuclear magnetic resonance scientist, works in a University of Minnesota research lab that may have to be moved because it is just 70 feet from where the planned Central Corridor light rail tracks are to be built. (Photo by Bill Klotz)

By Bill Clements
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — University of Minnesota officials say upcoming light rail construction will force the shutdown of a valuable research laboratory, and may require a permanent relocation of the facility.

University officials are making plans to move the underground nuclear magnetic resonance lab because it is just 70 feet from the tracks where Central Corridor light rail trains will rumble by.

It will cost $15 million to $20 million to move the lab — money expected to come from a contingency account that is part of the light rail project’s budget — according to Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of university services.

The lab’s highly sensitive magnets, which are used to conduct medical research that attracts $110 million in federal grants a year — are incompatible with the vibrations and electromagnetic interference that will be produced by the trains, O’Brien said.

University officials are negotiating with the Metropolitan Council, the entity in charge of building the 11-mile, $956 million light rail line, over ways to reduce vibrations from passing trains, which will run through the center of the campus.

Regardless, the University will have to shut down the lab’s huge magnets before construction of the light rail line begins, O’Brien said.

About 80 labs in 19 buildings are near the line’s planned route, and more than a few house researchers working with sensitive equipment. O’Brien said a soon-to-be-released report will detail the “four or five” labs that could be most affected and might have to be moved.

Earlier reports had warned that the university might have to move dozens of labs because of the vibrations and electromagnetic interference.

In all, according to O’Brien, the labs that will be affected generate about $650 million in federal research grants every year.

Heavy construction on the Central Corridor is scheduled to begin this summer and the light rail line should start running in 2014.

Both sides say they want to resolve their differences soon so construction can start on time, enabling the project to qualify for money from the federal government.

Officials with the Met Council recently revealed what they say is the primary sticking point in negotiations with the university — the university’s demand that the council pay $25,000 for every day vibrations exceed predetermined safe levels once the light rail line starts operating.

“Our position is, we can’t have one public body paying another public body for technical violations that cause no harm,” Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld said.

O’Brien said the university disagrees, and she outlined the university’s most critical concerns.

“Our greatest concern is, if there’s an exceedance (of the safe limits), are they going to fix it?”

She added that the university determined the $25,000 figure by looking at agreements between other universities facing the same issues: “We didn’t just pull that number out of the air.”

Besides, she said, the university rejects the Met Council’s “no harm, no foul” approach: “If that’s the case, then that’s not really a performance standard.”

In January and February, the Met Council and the university made progress toward an agreement that would result in a memorandum of understanding that would enable the project to move into the construction stage, O’Brien said.

She emphasized that the university’s main objective is “to protect the university’s research, get the Central Corridor built and have a durable agreement (regarding the vibrations and electromagnetic interference).”

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