It looks like the Southwest Light Rail Transit project might rival Boston’s Big Dig. The Big Dig was a tunnel mega-project in Boston that ended up taking way longer and costing way more than anyone expected.
The Big Dig was a disaster. The Metropolitan Council’s SWLRT could be a bad sequel with its budget shortfall and decade-long delay.
According to a special review released Friday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA), the Met Council still has “not identified funding” for more than $500 million of the $2.74 billion cost for SWLRT.
Some eyebrows were raised in the Minnesota House in March when the Met Council — who is responsible for the design, engineering, construction, and operation of the light rail —announced it needed more time and money to finish the project.
The House passed a bill 129-1 authorizing a special audit of SWLRT as a result.
State Sen. Scott Newman isn’t happy with Friday’s findings.
“The Met Council, entirely appointed by the governor, has horribly mismanaged this project. The Hennepin County Commissioners are subjecting their taxpayers to a massive tax increase,” Newman said in a press release Friday morning. “The governor and those commissioners are responsible for this unprecedented misuse of public funds and must be held accountable.”
The council cites three reasons for the increased cost and delays. The first reason is uncertainty about the final location of freight rail along the project’s alignment. The second is the construction of a light rail tunnel in the Minneapolis Kenilworth Corridor, and lastly, the need for a concrete barrier wall between freight rail and light rail traffic along a portion of the alignment.
Newman said the OLA’s review gives him no confidence the Met Council or Hennepin County is properly managing the project.
“While some cost overruns and delays can be expected with big projects, a doubling of the cost and nearly a decade of delays are unprecedented,” Newman said in the release.
The SWLRT project, an extension of the existing Green Line, is supposed to provide more efficient public transportation by connecting downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka, and St. Louis Park. The project includes the construction of 16 new transit stations, two tunnels, and 14.5 miles of track.
The Federal Transit Administration approved the Met Council’s application to apply for a federal grant in 2011. “In that year, the Council projected that the line would cost $1.25 billion and that it would begin service to the public in 2018,” the report says.
Since then, the Met Council has increased its estimated cost several times.
“By March 2022, the Council’s projected budget for the line was approximately $2.74 billion for a 2027 opening date. At the time this report was published, the Metropolitan Council had not yet determined the exact cost of the project, and its governing body had not formally adopted a revised estimate,” the report continues.
In another stunning finding, the report says the Met Council has approved “622 change orders,” or changes to the project’s scope, for a net cost of $225 million. The council anticipated some of these change orders when they opened the project up for bidding but chose not to disclose this in the project’s scope.
The report says:
“According to Metropolitan Council officials, the Eden Prairie Town Center Station and the barrier wall change orders were expected at the time the Council opened the civil construction contract for bids. However, the Council chose to open the Southwest LRT project for bids without the Eden Prairie Town Center Station and the barrier wall included in the project’s scope because it was concerned that delaying the bid would have delayed the project or that fewer contractors would bid on the project in the future, resulting in higher costs.”
Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said he believes the report “confirms we’ve been transparent with timelines and budget.”
“The report validates that we as an organization did not make these decisions independently. It shows that for the past 40 years, several community partners have been engaged in all the discussions and decision-making,” Zelle said. “We strongly believe accountability and transparency are critical to ensuring public programs and projects are run and managed efficiently. It is also important to guarantee accountability and transparency because things do not always go as planned.”
A program evaluation of the SWLRT project is expected to be released next year.
Sheila Qualls is an award-winning journalist and former civilian editor of an Army newspaper. Prior to joining Alpha News, she was a Christian Marriage and Family columnist at Patheos.com and a personal coach. Her work has been published in The Upper Room, the MOPS blog, Grown and Flown, and The Christian Post. She speaks nationally on issues involving faith and family.