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President's Perspective: Bruininks discusses the Central Corridor and University

By Jim Thorp

From Brief, June 17, 2008

Typically, the June meeting of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents garners extra attention for the approval of the University's annual budget and the setting of tuition. But at the June 13, 2008, meeting, the budget recommendation shared the spotlight with a resolution regarding the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (LRT) project.

The Central Corridor LRT project will connect Minneapolis and St. Paul with a light-rail transit line, projected to be completed and operational in 2014. Both the LRT resolution and the budget recommendation were adopted by the board, with extensive discussion about the long-term implications of each:

According to President Robert H. Bruininks, both actions are critical to positioning the University for an uncertain future.

Due diligence "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," Bruininks said. "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."

During the past few months, the University not only completed its analysis of the Northern Alignment, but also continued to:

Bruininks and Vice President of University Services Kathleen O?Brien explained that the current cost projections by the Metropolitan Council favor a Washington Avenue at-grade alignment with a transit/pedestrian mall. Both the administration and the Regents expressed their ongoing concerns regarding the Washington at-grade alternative, including:

"We reached the decision we did on Friday due to three things," Bruininks said. "First, we completed an analysis of the Northern Alignment. Second, in just the past few weeks, we have participated in numerous hours of face-to-face discussions and have made significant progress toward addressing the challenges posed by the at-grade option. And third, we had time to share our findings and recommendation with the Board and to develop a resolution that adequately addresses their ongoing concerns and oversight responsibilities.

"It's important to note that a public research university, in particular, has a responsibility for careful analysis--and that just six months passed between when the Metropolitan Council said we could study a potential Northern Alignment and when we acted on the result of that study. I understand the impatience in the community, but we've actually moved very quickly on an extremely complex public-works project."

Fiscally responsible Bruininks's budget recommendation included measures to address future budget reductions now, in anticipation of a sluggish economy for the foreseeable future. In fact, the recent cuts to the University's appropriations are addressed entirely through responsible financial management and delayed investments. Since much of the current state budget shortfall was solved using one-time money, however, the possibility of future state budget shortfalls looms large.

The University must continue to find creative ways to dramatically reduce costs and increase productivity and increase private and sponsored funding, Bruininks told the Regents--but even so, tuition will remain an important source of revenue. Although tuition is rising less than projected next fall, tuition rates remain a serious national concern, and the University must also continue its work to ensure that higher education in affordable.

"The cost of higher education is a problem--any time more than two-thirds of Americans agree something is an issue, we need to take notice," he said. "But too much focus is put on the tuition rate and annual increases. For example:

"In fact, this year, the University will administer more than $200 million in grant and scholarship aid to students. We've raised $233 million through the Promise of Tomorrow Scholarship Drive in recent years, doubling the number of scholarships we're awarding and the average amount per award. We're meeting the needs of all our low-income Pell-eligible Minnesota students--now we need to draw a bigger circle in terms of need and begin doing more for that next tier of students and their families."