The Minnesota House voted Thursday night to authorize a special audit of the Southwest light rail project, a “billion-dollar boondoggle” that could take an extra four years and another $550 million to finish.
The project’s $2 billion price tag was controversial from the beginning. The 14.5-mile extension from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie was supposed to open next year.
But then the Metropolitan Council announced in January that it needed more time and a lot more money to finish the project.
“We have 17 very specific items that we want the legislative auditor to investigate. It is very thorough. This is a bit unusual but I think the situation here is without precedent as well,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein.
Hornstein is the lead author of a bipartisan bill that directs the Office of the Legislative Auditor to investigate the reasons for the project’s unprecedented cost overruns and delays.
The legislation also instructs the auditor to examine whether the Metropolitan Council properly managed the project’s schedule and costs, and if it sufficiently scrutinized route decisions and design choices.
Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the bill that would have killed the Southwest light rail project completely.
“We don’t need an audit. We wouldn’t need to waste this money on an audit. We could literally just shut this project down. We could just kill it,” he said, calling the project the “biggest waste of money that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
He said cost overruns and delays are “standard operating procedure” for transit lines not just in Minnesota but across the country.
“This is 1800s technology to solve a modern-day problem,” he added, noting that ridership has plummeted and likely won’t recover because more people are telecommuting to work.
Republicans also unsuccessfully moved to pause funding of the project until the audit’s completion, which is expected to take a year. They expressed appreciation for the audit but said it looks like “an election year safety net” and does nothing to actually hold anyone accountable.
The bill to audit ultimately passed in a vote of 129-1. Rep. Erik Mortensen was the only legislator to vote against the bill. He said he voted against it because it will “do nothing.”
The bill passed with two amendments: one would require biannual reports to the Legislature on the project’s status, and another would require the Metropolitan Council to alert the Legislature if cost estimates increase by more than 5% or if additional delays exceed six months.
The bill now heads to the Senate. The audit will cost $200,000.