Amid overruns and delays, deal sealed to finish Southwest light rail

A Metro Transit Green Line train
A Metro Transit Green Line train moves through downtown St. Paul as heavy snow falls mid-afternoon. The Metropolitan Council will soon vote on a $210 million settlement to pay for hundreds of changes to the original plans for the Southwest Corridor light rail project.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News 2018

Updated: Jan. 27, 10:35 a.m. | Posted: Jan. 26, 4:24 p.m.

The battle over construction of the 14 1/2-mile Southwest Corridor light rail project looks to be nearing an end, as the Metropolitan Council and the contractors building the line have struck a deal to finish the work.

Council members signed off on a $210 million settlement Wednesday, finally giving the project a budget and a schedule.

With $40 million due up front, the deal will pay for hundreds of changes to the original plans. They include an additional rail stop in Eden Prairie, a mile-long barrier wall between light and freight rail tracks and a tunnel through the Minneapolis lakes district. 

The agreement comes after more than $200 million in contingency funds were already put into the project, which broke ground with a $2 billion price tag in 2019. 

“Had this settlement not occurred, the cost would be even considerably larger, and delays much larger, if we had stayed on the original path,” Charlie Zelle, chair of the Met Council and a former state transportation commissioner, told lawmakers during a review of the project. “We're dealing with the pragmatic and the actual conditions.”

The delay is now expected to extend nearly three years. Major construction was supposed to wrap up this October, although a Met Council presentation says the “civil construction,” involving tracks and bridges and the like, is only about 60 percent done.

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Metro Transit’s deputy general manager for capital projects, Nick Thompson, said other systems, like power, ticket sales, safety and security and other operational details, are only about 2 percent complete. 

Thompson told the Met Council the new date for passengers to begin riding the line is in 2027.

Thompson cited soil challenges for the Kenilworth Tunnel, a key part of the deal to win approval from the city of Minneapolis. It’s been one of the biggest challenges, requiring a major reengineering effort and a complete shift in construction methods. 

Legislators on both sides of the aisle expressed exasperation during a recent hearing where Met Council officials said they still couldn’t give an end date for the project. 

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he intended to sponsor a bill to launch a probe into the whole project, with funding for the Office of the Legislative Auditor to tackle a look at the state’s largest-ever construction project. 

Republicans said the overruns were a sign that rail transit simply wasn’t viable. 

“When are we going to say this is too much and avoid doing this in the future. Maybe we have to do what we're doing now, but maybe we learn from this experience and avoid doing something like this in the future,” said Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound.

He said the next planned line, from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park, should be shut down now. 

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said planners aren't getting the message.

“You just cannot keep coming back to the taxpayers for more money, more money, more money. They have to come up with a better plan. They have to be more transparent,” Housley said.

At least one Republican called for work to stop on the Southwest Corridor. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, called for all spending on the project to be frozen until a complete audit could be done of the project. 

The project has experienced opposition and funding uncertainty since it was proposed. In 2014, a group of Minneapolis residents sued the Met Council to halt the project. A judge dismissed the suit in 2018. Ground was broken on the project later that year.