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Politics, the Vikings, and the U.S. Bank Stadium pedestrian bridge

By Mike Kaszuba

After having committed $498 million in taxpayer money to help build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, state and local officials faced a new issue as U.S. Bank Stadium neared completion two years ago:

How could people be convinced that a multi-million-dollar bridge was now needed outside the stadium to ensure pedestrian safety?  And how could people be assured that it was not just another perk for the team?

“We need some information to dispel the sense that the bridge would only be used ten days a year” for Vikings games, Brian Lamb, the general manager of Metro Transit, wrote in an April 2015 e-mail.  An internal study had shown that of the more than 400 events planned annually for the new stadium just a handful – other than Vikings games – would draw large crowds.

Public Record Media (PRM), a Saint Paul-based non-profit, reviewed more than 1,400 e-mails and documents regarding the project from Metro Transit and the Metropolitan Council, which oversaw the bridge’s construction.  Metro Transit operates the light rail trains that run alongside the stadium.

The documents, which took nearly two years to obtain, were released as the stadium is set to host the Super Bowl on February 4.

Project frustrations

Documents show that the rushed attempt to build the bridge frustrated officials.  At one point, Metro Transit’s Lamb threatened to kill the project.  Construction companies were wary of bidding – only two firms submitted bids, and their price was millions above expectations, partly because of the stiff penalties they would face for not finishing the bridge before the Vikings’ first game in August of 2016.

The documents also reveal how transit officials repeatedly prodded the Vikings to help pay for the bridge, a project that would eventually carry a $10 million pricetag.  Gary Cunningham, a Met Council member and husband of then-Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, wrote in an April 2015 e-mail that a top Viking official told him the team had “no interest in negotiating to pay for anything regarding this pedestrian bridge.”

Additional documents showed that the team, in an attempt to look for alternatives to the bridge, pushed Metro Transit officials to explore an elaborate plan that would force light rail passengers not going to a game to disembark and walk for blocks around the stadium to reconnect to their trains.

Bridge project mirrored stadium controversy

In some ways, the controversy over the bridge mirrored the debate over the $1.1 billion stadium itself.  That project had pitted those who said Minnesotans would enjoy far-reaching benefits from helping to finance the stadium against those who saw it as mainly benefiting the team and its owners who were reluctant to help pay for it.  The Vikings organization would eventually increase its share of the construction costs to more than $600 million, slightly more than half of the stadium’s official price tag.

As the bridge debate ensued, transit officials insisted the project was necessary for public safety.

According to documents provided to PRM, studies showed that 70 percent of the visitors to the 66,200-seat stadium would exit within 15 minutes of the end of a Vikings game or concert.  Also – 2,100 pedestrians leaving the stadium would need to cross the light rail tracks – where trains move in both directions every 65 seconds.

The documents outline how Lamb would become one of the project’s biggest advocates, but not before he and others expressed significant reservations.  A year before the stadium opened, he had threatened to have Metro Transit walk away from it.  “After much contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that the construct of the agreement we have been working towards is no longer supportable,” Lamb wrote in a June 2015 e-mail.  “We will not be building a pedestrian bridge.”

Records obtained by PRM showed that before its final approval, the project was intensely debated at the Met Council.  At least one critic asked why – if the bridge was now so important – it was not included in the stadium’s original budget.  In an April 2015 e-mail, Met Council member Gail Dorfman asked “why this project is just now coming before the Council so late in the process.”  Seven months later, she would call the project a “bad deal before, and a worse deal now.”

Edward Reynoso, another Met Council member, partly blamed the team and said at an April 2015 meeting that “the need for transit infrastructure should have been no surprise to the Vikings.”

However, Reynoso and other Met Council members would eventually curb their criticism.  After stating in an April 2015 e-mail that “I have not found one person in my district who is inclined to support this expenditure,” Cunningham would later be described as having “come around more” to supporting the bridge.

Lamb meanwhile tried to explain Metro Transit’s predicament, and said that by the time his staff had convinced others that the bridge was necessary “all of the [stadium] project funding had been allocated.”

Time pressures

With the stadium nearing completion, the bridge faced acute time pressures.  “This project has an EXTREMELY TIGHT deadline,” wrote Carol Hejl, a Metro Transit official, in a September 2015 e-mail.  As the Met Council prepared to vote on the project, the Vikings announced in November 2015 that the stadium was already 80 percent complete, and just nine months away from hosting its first football game.

Due to the tensions surrounding the project, even the slightest delay had political overtones.  When then-Met Council chair Adam Duininck announced in April 2015 that a key vote would likely be postponed, he wrote in an e-mail that “we should anticipate that the postponement will be interpreted as a small victory by people who do not support the project.”

The bridge contractor — L.S. Black Constructors of St. Paul — would have to pay $5,000 per day if the bridge was not completed by the end of July 2016, and $140,000 for each Vikings home game that took place without it being complete.  One potential bidder told Metro Transit that the “project schedule [was] too tight.”  According to a November 2015 e-mail, another said it stayed away from the project because it was “highly unlikely to be done on time, [and because of the potential for] liquidated damages [and] negative media exposure.”

For a relatively small project, the bridge posed multiple complications.  In June of 2015 — with the bridge still a year from being completed — the project’s consultants were “burning through approximately $20K/week in [fees] to meet the schedule we’ve provided,” wrote Jim Harwood, Metro Transit’s manager for the project.   The design for the bridge included intricate details:  Computer modeling measured how quickly a Vikings fan might cross the bridge “moving at the fastest rate”, and also estimated how long a mother with two children would cross walking at the “slowest rate.”

In the project’s early stages, some officials saw the bridge as something the public would pay for in its entirety.  In a November 2014 e-mail message, Ted Mondale – the then-executive director of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the public entity that would own the stadium – proposed that the Met Council be granted “the right, at its sole cost and expense, to construct, operate and maintain a grade-separated crossing or pedestrian bridge.”

Looking for ways to raise revenue from the project, officials contemplated putting advertising on the bridge, and even wrapping an elevator door connected to the bridge with advertising — a move that by itself would generate an estimated $1,500 a month.  But the idea to advertise on the bridge was later discarded.

Negotiating with the Vikings

As with the overall stadium project, the Vikings’ involvement with the bridge drew heavy scrutiny.

In a July 2015 e-mail, Harwood said that the team wanted to withhold any financial contribution until the project was complete.  The team frustrated Lamb and others.  “We will definitely come back with a less cash based alternative if we do not prevail on [the Vikings and sports facilities authority] that their customers deserve something better than [being] stuck in the cold waiting to cross an intersection,” Lamb wrote in a May 2015 e-mail.

At another point, Lamb was critical of the Vikings’ apparent attempt to wrap a separate commitment to help pay for the bridge’s design costs into its overall financial contribution for the bridge.  “I thought we had been very clear that the $3.5 million contribution was for construction cost only,” Lamb wrote in July of 2015.

A month before the bridge was approved, Lamb talked of a strategy to continue to pressure the Vikings.  “We will start with a delayed approach and see how much [the] Vikings want it now,” Lamb said in a November 2015 e-mail.

In the end, the parties reached a final agreement – though it raised eyebrows over how much the team would in the end actually pay.  Although the Vikings’ contribution to the bridge construction would increase from $3.5 million to $6 million, a Met Council briefing memo in November 2015 stated that “90% of the advertising revenues at the [LRT] station will go to the repaying [of] the initial capital contribution of the Vikings for a period of 30 years or until a point that the $6.0 million contribution, in net present value, is repaid.”

In early negotiations, before the project’s costs increased, the team had agreed to pay up to $3.5 million and get 50 percent of advertising revenues.

Vikings’ impact on transit station design

The Vikings, at one point, wanted to explore a more radical solution: Have Metro Transit build two temporary train stations away from U.S. Bank Stadium so that trains would not pass near the stadium on game days.

As early as May 2014, top Vikings executive Lester Bagley asked officials to more fully study a Metro Transit idea that called for “shifting [light rail] stops away from the stadium on game days.“

Transit officials ultimately rejected the idea as too costly, and said it would force non-game riders “to exit the train at a temporary platform [and] walk three to four blocks to [another] temporary platform” if they wanted to continue on a train.

A Metro Transit official said the plan “would not only be a significant inconvenience for these transit riders,” it would “make it near impossible to maintain a schedule of regular service.”

As part of the final agreement with the Vikings, the Downtown East light rail station in front of the stadium – and adjacent to the pedestrian bridge — was renamed for U.S. Bank.  (The bank had also struck a naming rights deal with the team for the stadium itself).  Soon after, the team informed transit officials of the color scheme that now would be needed on signage at the newly-named U.S. Bank Stadium Station.

“Pantone 2748 is known as U.S. Bank Blue and is the brand’s primary color,” wrote Ashley Engels, an associate counsel for the Vikings, in a September 2015 e-mail.  “As such, it should deliver a dominant impression over other colors.”

The Vikings also asked transit officials to break the news to a nearby Downtown East neighborhood group that the light rail station would no longer carry the “Downtown East” name.  Metro Transit official Bruce Howard wrote in November 2015 that Vikings executives were “not wanting us to put [the] Vikings in the position of having to be the ones to tell the neighborhood groups that [the team wants] the name to be U.S. Bank Stadium Station – only.”

Lamb also took issue with the negotiating tactics of both the Vikings and the sports facilities authority.  In a January 2015 e-mail, Lamb accused both parties of arguing that Metro Transit had only “use rights” for its trains passing near the stadium.  “What the team and the authority are trying to do is flip the relationship entirely,” he wrote.  “It is a wholesale rewrite of the parties[’] relationship.

“There is a major disconnect here,” he added.

Rounding up the necessary votes

Even with the Vikings and the sports facilities authority now on board, the bridge’s tight financing scheme was a major issue.  “Wait until you tell them [that] in order to save costs you had to construct the bridge with bamboo,” Lamb joked to a Metro Transit colleague in a March 2015 e-mail.

As the project raced to meet its deadlines, squabbling over the bridge continued.  E-mails and other documents obtained by PRM revealed that in June 2015, the project faced a make-or-break moment.

“One of my City of Minneapolis staffers heard that ‘the bridge was dead.’  What is the status of it?” asked Met Council member Cara Letofsky in June 2015.  Letofsky was a policy aide to former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.  Her e-mail came as Lamb — in his own message that same month to Mondale and others — said that Metro Transit would not be building the bridge.

Letofsky suggested a strategy for moving forward, and urged transit officials not to perpetuate the notion “that the Vikings are making us pay for something that they should be paying for.”  Instead, she advised, “you should pitch this as a needed station area enhancement.”

Others also rallied for the bridge.  After calling the project “a ridiculous amenity that doesn’t deserve to skip ahead of regular route bus riders and transit users” in a September 2014 e-mail, Duininck was by March of 2015 supporting the project, citing the added financial help from the Vikings.  “This is a much better deal,” he wrote in April 2015.  “I can probably flip one or two of the no votes as well.”

But the re-worked agreement in the fall of 2015 — even with the increased Vikings contribution — did not end the questions.  Giving the team a larger share of the advertising revenue at the U.S. Bank Stadium Station to help offset the team’s larger contribution meant that “we are paying for the whole bridge,” Met Council member Katie Rodriguez concluded in a November 2015 e-mail.  She added that she was “grateful” for transit officials “trying to negotiate more support from the Vikings for the project but I do wish it was more.”

Lamb replied to the complaints, and defended the ad revenue agreement with the Vikings.  “We are not paying for the bridge.  The advertising revenue is not inherently ‘ours’ and it can be reasonably stated the projected amount of revenue from this station can be directly attributable to the presence of the stadium,” he wrote.

A Metro Transit official also told Rodriguez that the agency had received “many other components” in the re-worked agreement, including easements from the sports facilities authority and also “marketing trade-off value.”  A November 2015 e-mail examined several scenarios for splitting advertising revenue with the team – though all of them had the Vikings getting at least 50 percent of a split of revenues with Metro Transit.

Others had different concerns.  Met Council member Jennifer Munt asked how Metro Transit could afford to help fund the bridge while other “passengers [across the transit system] wait for the bus without shelter?”

At roughly the same time, Duininck was counting the increasing number of votes on the Met Council in favor of the project.  “Cunningham has come around more as has Reynoso,” he wrote in an April 2015 e-mail.

Lamb urged officials to maintain perspective.  “The shared pedestrian bridge investment with the Vikings represents a unique public/private partnership,” he wrote in a July 2015 e-mail.  “In most cases public infrastructure is funded by the public sector.”  He and other transit officials also pointed to safety upgrades to the light rail station at Target Field, the Minnesota Twins ballpark in downtown Minneapolis that opened in 2010.

In a key meeting in November of 2015, a Met Council committee endorsed the pedestrian bridge by an 8 to 1 margin, a move that paved the way for a final approval shortly afterward.

“Why should the [Met] Council be on the hook for this investment [at U.S. Bank Stadium]?  It is a good question,” Lamb had written in an April 2015 e-mail.  Lamb urged critics to ask the same question of the state Department of Transportation and the City of Minneapolis, both of which had also spent extra money on U.S. Bank Stadium-related projects.

But Lamb in the same e-mail added: “This investment needs to occur.”

 

(Supporting documents for this article can be accessed by contacting Public Record Media at admin@publicrecordmedia.org , or at 651-556-1381)


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