The Hennepin County Board on Thursday committed to spending another $204 million on the Southwest light rail project — the biggest public works project in state history.
The Metropolitan Council, which would build and operate the line, said earlier this month that the total estimated cost for the 14.5-mile line had reached more than $2 billion.
Light rail backers anticipate the federal government will provide as much as $929 million for the project. Hennepin County will pay for the rest through a half-cent sales tax and a $20 car excise tax earmarked for transportation.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLoughlin said the county must make up the difference in order to get the federal funds, adding that the two existing light rail lines have surpassed ridership expectations and spurred real estate development.
"There is a history of success from the rail projects that we have built in this region. And the county has taken a leadership role in all of those," he said.
• Feb. 27: Judge rules in favor of Met Council for Southwest light rail • Sept. 2017: Met Council rejects all Southwest light rail bids as too costly
However, it's still not certain whether the project will receive federal funding. Transit planners in Seattle, Durham, N.C., and Santa Ana, Calif., are also banking on money from the Federal Transit Administration. The Met Council hopes to receive additional FTA funding for another Twin Cities light rail project — the Bottineau Line — which would connect downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.
McLoughlin said he anticipates that the FTA will have a final decision on full funding for Southwest in the "early spring" of 2019. In the meantime, he said construction could begin this year if the agency indicates that full funding is forthcoming.
Commissioners Mike Opat and Jeff Johnson voted against the additional county spending. Opat said the project is being managed poorly and Johnson — who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor — said the light rail is too expensive.
The cost of the project has nearly doubled since the start, and at the end of the budgeting process, there was an additional 8 percent cost jump that was mostly due to project delays for things such as environmental studies, working through disputes with existing railroads and a do-over on construction bids. Amid the delays, costs for basic supplies, such as fuel and steel, have shot up. Labor and land costs have risen, too.
While the Central Corridor and Hiawatha lines follow existing roads, the Southwest line follows a path that threads a narrow strip of land between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, making it more expensive to build.
The Southwest light rail isn't Hennepin County's only transit project. In addition to Bottineau, the county is also trying to build the Orange bus rapid transit line. Some supporters are wondering if there's going to be enough money to go around.
"The Bottineau continues to be well supported by each and every city, the planning is going very well," Opat said. "We need a couple of agreements. And we have a budget of about $1.5 billion and I don't expect that to increase."
The Met Council still has to award the construction bid for Southwest and Hennepin County has to authorize the payment for its part of the deal, which is expected to happen in late July. If all goes as planned, the trains would begin rolling in 2023.
Correction (June 1, 2018): An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the total estimated cost of the project.
Correction (July 16, 2018): Southwest light rail supporters anticipate the federal government will provide $929 million for the project. An earlier version of this story said federal authorities had already pledged the money.