Politics and Government

Minnesota Senate unanimously approves light rail audit

A light rail train is seen off the tracks in downtown Minneapolis.
A light rail train is seen off the tracks in downtown Minneapolis in 2017. The problem-ridden Southwest Light Rail transit line is about to be put under an auditor’s microscope.
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2017

The Minnesota Senate voted unanimously Monday to approve an audit of a more than $2 billion light rail line that's been marred by delays and huge cost overruns since the transit project broke ground in 2019.

The bill allocates $200,000 to the Legislative Auditor's office to conduct a special review of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which is shaping up as one of the most expensive public works projects in state history. The audit will include evaluations of project costs and overruns, changes to the project schedule, the qualifications of project management staff and quality of construction, among other criteria.

It also requires the Metropolitan Council to provide project updates to lawmakers every six months and notify lawmakers immediately if the project costs go 5 percent over budget more than they already are.

“What's occurred here, in my mind, is just literally criminal as to how badly the taxpayers — be they federal or state or county taxpayers — how badly they are being treated by the Met Council on this project,” Republican Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, said on the floor Monday. “They've gone too far to stop and it's too expensive to go ahead. What are they going to do? Keep wasting taxpayer money.”

The 14.5-mile Green Line extension, which is about 60 percent completed, will connect downtown Minneapolis with southwestern suburbs that include St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Eden Prairie. The project is now estimated to cost $2.75 billion and will be passenger-ready by 2027, which is hundreds of millions more expensive and four years later than originally planned.

The increased costs and delays are due to issues with construction of the tracks, including in a narrow corridor between two Minneapolis lakes, where there have been serious groundwater and soil issues, and a condominium complex has sustained damage blamed on the project.

Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble, of Minneapolis, the author of the bill, said he and House Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein asked legislative auditors last summer to conduct a preliminary review of the project last summer.

memo from auditors in October outlined a “prolonged and significant” difference in opinion between the Met Council and a third-party contractor on construction issues.

The Minnesota House passed the bill last week 129-1. Minor changes in the Senate version passed Monday require final approval by the House.

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