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Will skyrocketing cost kill Southwest light rail?

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Light rail rendering
This artist rendering shows how the proposed Southwest light rail route would look to boaters at the bridge over the canal between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

The Southwest Corridor light rail project appears to be in serious trouble.

News Monday that the proposed project's estimated costs had swelled to $2 billion led critics and supporters to question if the proposed Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie line was worth the money.

State and local taxpayers have already poured close to $60 million into planning the southwest line. Gov. Mark Dayton says he won't back spending any more unless he's "satisfied that its cost can be justified and properly managed."

He also called for an outside review to examine how Metropolitan Council staff underestimated the project's cost and whether the council is up to the task of managing "a project of this magnitude."

"There are enormous cost implications for everybody who's been a partner in this operation," Dayton said. "There's no guarantee that it won't go higher as other events unfold. So it's very, very concerning."

Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck didn't sound all that certain either about the rail line's future. He told reporters he's re-examining whether light rail is the best option for improving transit in the southwest metro.

"When I say all options are on the table, I mean all options do need to be on the table," he said Monday. "There's not one or two things that seem to be the reasons that the cost went up. It seems to be a number of things. And it's shocking."

Asked if killing the project was one of the options on the table, he replied, "That wouldn't be my first choice, but I think that we need to do the cost-benefit on whether it's worth doing or not."

Southwest light rail route
A map of the proposed Southwest light rail route.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Council

The Met Council on Monday said environmental tests revealed the soils along the 16-mile line were more polluted than originally believed. The ground was also less stable than planners assumed, which means pilings would have to be buried deeper into the bedrock below.

Those problems are partially to blame for the project costing $341 million more than the prior estimate and pushing the total to $2 billion. Two years ago, the estimated price tag for the project was $1.25 billion.

Staff have also now pushed back opening day for the proposed line by a year to 2020, assuming there is an opening day.

It's the latest in a series of cost increases for what was already the most expensive transit project in state history.

The ballooning budget also means the Met Council will have to reapply for federal funding from the Federal Transit Administration. The budget calls for the federal government to pay half the cost.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, one of the strongest supporters of Southwest light rail, acknowledged the rising costs are a "huge setback," but he pointed out previous light rail lines have faced budget challenges, too.

"There are lots of times in these projects when you just want to throw up your hands and quit. That's the nature of these things," he said. "You have to have people involved who are committed to making these projects work. They're not going to quit. And they're going to figure out a way to make it work, and that's really where we are right now."

Planners should look for ways to scale back the project, before they consider abandoning it, McLaughlin added.

The project faces legal obstacles as well. Residents of Minnetonka and Minneapolis have filed lawsuits over the project's potential environmental impacts.

Opus Hill
A sign protesting the Southwest light rail line sits next to a recreational trail near Claremont Apartments and the Opus Hill area in Minnetonka, Minn., March 31, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, said she hopes the increased costs will prove to be the death knell of Southwest light rail.

"The project is ill-conceived from the standpoint of the environment, from the standpoint of it doesn't serve the people who need transportation the most, from the standpoint of cost, which is astronomical," she said. "It's just riddled with problems."

A federal judge is expected to rule on the lawsuit shortly. If the judge sides with Pattock's group, it could cause additional delays and drive costs even higher.

If the rail route is going to be built, it shouldn't be delayed or allowed to exceed its budget, said Matt Look, an Anoka County commissioner who's opposed Southwest light rail in his role on the Counties Transit Improvement Board, which would provide 30 percent of the money for the project.

"At some point we have to decide, look, if we're going to do a project, we're going to spend $1 billion or set a target," he said.

"If that means we can't have as many stations, if that means we can't have public art at the stations ... if that means you have to make some cutbacks, then that's what it means," Look added. "That's reality. That's life."