Auditor report: Half a billion dollars of SW light rail project unfunded

Electricians install wiring
Electricians install wiring at the new Bryn Mawr light rail station in Minneapolis on Sept. 1.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The Southwest Corridor light rail project between Minneapolis and the southwestern suburbs has been wracked by delays and cost overruns that have led to a shortfall of more than half a billion dollars, according to a report released Friday by the state Office of the Legislative Auditor. 

Since 2011, the cost to build the 14.5 mile extension of the Metro Green Line has more than doubled to $2.74 billion. 

The legislative auditor found that about $225 million of the additional costs were approved by the Metropolitan Council in April and include a previously deferred station in Eden Prairie, a longer concrete barrier between freight rail and light rail lines and problems with construction of the tunnel through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor.

The federal government is currently funding $969 million of the project and Hennepin County has committed $772 million, with an additional $200 million from the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. The rest of the funding is being supplied by cities and the state of Minnesota. That leaves an estimated $535 million that’s unfunded.  

The auditor determined the delays and increases in building costs are due to uncertainty about whether freight rail lines would be relocated. In 2014, the Metropolitan Council decided that plan wouldn’t work, and decided to build the light rail lines next to the freight rail.

The legislative auditor’s report also found that the delays themselves have ballooned the budget due to higher costs for materials and the expense of employing consultants and construction contractors for longer time periods.  

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In a response letter attached to the report, Metropolitan Council Chair Charles Zelle praised the work of the legislative auditor, saying it “carefully documented the main drivers of change on the project’s budget and timeline.”  

The legislative auditor did not look at whether the project’s increased costs and delays were justified. Another report released early next year will look at other parts of the project. 

The findings of the report have led people from across the political spectrum to criticize the Met Council and the project itself.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who serves on the state Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said the Met Council seemed to turn a blind eye to anticipated costs that should have been publicly vetted.

“We have an agency that needs a lot more oversight, transparency and accountability,” he said. “The only real remedy to that is to make sure that the people who are in charge of running all of the services and all of the infrastructure for which they’re responsible have to be elected. We can’t simply have a bureaucracy that has no real measure of accountability to the public it serves.”

Dibble said he’ll introduce a bill next session to make the Metropolitan Council elected by voters. The members of the council are currently appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Dibble said there’s a growing consensus that an organization like the Metropolitan Council that spends billions of taxpayer dollars needs to be transparent to the public and accountable to voters.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen said the light rail line is “arguably horse crap,” but that it might not be possible to stop the project at this point.

“This is going to be dollars taken away from kids, dollars taken away from the hungry, dollars taken away from the homeless,” Jensen said. “There’s a certain pie we have in terms of dollars, and if we’re taking this chunk out to maintain a broken misguided initiative like Southwest light rail, then we’re hurting other people.”

An email statement from a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council said no report can detail all 40 years of a project’s history, but that “this independent report confirms the Met Council has been transparent about the costs and timeline every step of the way.”

Planning for the Southwest light rail transit line started in the 1980s. The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority purchased land in the Kenilworth Corridor in 1984, when the organization also started to study the possibility of light rail transit in the county.  

The light rail line, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park, has been repeatedly delayed over the years. The Metropolitan Council estimated in 2011 that the line would open by 2018, but has now pushed that estimated date back to 2027.