Bus strike settled, but LRT's start awaits May announcement

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The yellow trains zipping along 5th Street were supposed to be a familiar scene by now.

Instead, light-rail transit vehicles -- originally scheduled to debut April 3 -- remain parked in a Metro Transit shed southeast of Downtown, left idle by a labor dispute between Metro Transit drivers and officials. Despite a tentative settlement in the dispute April 13, Joe Marie, Metro Transit assistant general manager of rail operations, said officials would likely wait until May to set a new LRT opening date.

He said officials would have to assess how much staff attrition resulted from the 41-day strike.

"We have to wait until people come back to work," Marie said.

Before the strike ended, Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit's director of customer relations, said it would take officials at least eight weeks to get ready for another LRT grand opening. That would put the start no earlier than June 15.

The eight-week delay accounts for training time for 15 train operators and four weeks of train tests designed to simulate schedules for passengers, he said.

Metro Transit has hired 30 operators for the LRT trains, Marie said. Half have completed training.

Metro Transit had planned to begin LRT service between Downtown's Warehouse District and Ft. Snelling this month. Full service to the airport and Mall of America is scheduled for December, when the line must be open according to a federal funding agreement. During the strike, Metro Transit filed an amendment to an application to the federal government, which calls for an April 2005 start as a worst-case scenario. The amendment safeguards the agency from defaulting on its federal loan in the event of a yearlong delay, Gibbons said.

Some interpreted the move as an attempt to break the strike -- a charge that Metro Transit officials deny.

Congressman Martin Sabo, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis, wrote to Federal Transit Administrator Jenna Dorn earlier this month, calling on her to oppose the Metropolitan Council's request. Other members of the Minnesota's Congressional delegation also signed onto the letter, including Reps. Jim Oberstar, Collin Peterson and Betty McCollum.

While congresspeople supported part of the amendment seeking permission for small LRT line changes, they criticized moving back opening day.

"However, we believe that the Metropolitan Council request to delay the Hiawatha in-service date until April 2005 is an unfair attempt to extract concessions from workers in an ongoing labor-management contract dispute," the legislators wrote.