‘Monumental disaster’: Legislature sees bipartisan push to audit Southwest light rail project

The final price tag could be somewhere around $2.75 billion.

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Minnesota lawmakers from both parties are calling for an audit of the Southwest light rail project after news broke that construction will take an extra three years and add up to $550 million to the already high cost.

Leading the audit charge are Republican Sen. Scott Newman, Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble, and Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein. Newman is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, which Dibble also serves on, while Hornstein is chair of the House Transportation Committee.

The 14.5-mile light rail will traverse between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. Supporters of the $2 billion project argue it’s critical for the area’s ever-increasing population, but more and more lawmakers, even those supportive of the project, are unsettled by the costs and the time to complete it.

On top of the $2 billion price tag, Metropolitan Council members recently agreed to a $210 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by a contractor and $200 million in “contingency funds” were approved. In a press release, Met Council leaders said they estimate “needing an additional $450 million to $550 million to finish the project.” That’s in addition to the contingency funds, so the final price tag could be somewhere around $2.75 billion.

Sen. Newman released a statement on the project Thursday, calling it a “monumental disaster” and advocating for an audit.

“Southwest Light Rail is a boondoggle of historic proportions. Words barely capture what a monumental disaster it has been,” he said. “Now we learn it will take at least three extra years and cost much, much, much more than we thought — plus $210 million to settle a lawsuit with a contractor. And we really have no idea what the final price tag will look like because they can’t, or won’t, tell us.”

“My colleague Senator Scott Dibble and I have talked about his bill to audit the project,” he continued. “I echo calls to freeze any funding for Southwest Light Rail until an audit is completed. It is beyond lunacy to consider spending even one more red cent on any more of this nonsense.”

Newman added that he expects a bill calling for an audit to “receive an early hearing in the Transportation Committee this year.” The light rail is not projected to begin service until 2027.

“In hindsight, we really could have done more to help illustrate and communicate the potential complications that come with a project of this magnitude,” Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle admitted.