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Has Southwest Light Rail Hit a Speed Bump—or The Wall?

The Met Council Chair announced on Monday that she was rejecting the four bids for Southwest Light Rail as being too high and not “responsive”—and that she was looking for ways to reduce the costs of the project. The commissioners voted last night after a very brief discussion to accept the Chair’s recommendation, though there is another vote scheduled for September 20, as well (I am not sure why).

The delay is good news; it gives the Center the opportunity to continue to make the case that LRT expansion is a massive mistake and that the Met Council’s governance structure is the culprit in this sordid tale of misallocated public resources. While the Met Council obsesses over fancy new LRT and bike lanes, Minnesotans cannot get to work or play in a reasonable amount of time.

By the way, I missed the entire discussion because I got stuck in traffic on the way to the meeting (a daily event now) but several friends including Kevin Terrell and Bill Dooley were there and filled me in on what little discussion took place.

As you see below, there were two “low” bids around $800 million, and two “high” bids around $1.1 billion–nearly identical sums when you are talking millions.

Ames Kraemer:  $796,517,023
Lunda McCrossan:  $807,888,309
Southwest Rail Constructors:  $1,068,703,540
Southwest Transit Constructors:  $1,080,081,811

This prompted one commissioner to ask whether there was something wrong with the request for proposal (RFP) sent out by the Council. Also, the two low bidders were present and understandably expressed frustration. I am sure that all four bidders spent a lot of time and money responding to the RFP. One can speculate that the Chair is blaming the bidders when in fact the problem is the project itself. In any event, there will be a new RFP come October.

Pending Council approval of this action, staff will begin working on possible modifications, with a plan to reissue the procurement in October. The bids are scheduled to be opened in December and awarded in March 2018. This delays the project by four months, moving the opening of the line to 2022.

The Chair said she was in DC early this week talking to the FTA about the delay—and its impact on the project. I wonder how she framed the Met Council’s current structural operating deficit of $89 million—and how the expansion of any transit would only make that worse. The FTA requires the Council to demonstrate that the existing system can be maintained before issuing a grant for SWLRT. It could not have been an easy meeting given how unlikely it is that the Legislature will fund SWLRT. Hennepin and Ramsey counties have raised taxes to build and operate new light rail but that still leaves the transit system short on funds.

Another commissioner asked whether the public would have a chance to weigh in on any changes: The Chair has made it clear that the goal was to avoid triggering the requirements for new municipal consents (and hearings) or environmental impact reviews.

But hasn’t The Crash Wall already done that? One railroad, the BNSF, has insisted on a 10-foot-high, three-foot-thick reinforced concrete wall to run between the freight line and SWLRT for 1.4 miles on most of the route between the Bryn Mawr station and downtown Minneapolis. That is $20 million in 220,000 cubic feet of reinforced concrete. But the Chair has said, “Staff doesn’t think it is enough of a change to reopen environmental review of the project.” According to Kevin Terrell, the rail corridor is a nationally registered “Historic District.” Normally that historic designation alone would trigger a review.

SWLRT has hit several walls: a structural operating deficit brought on by the Council favoring LRT expansion and bike lanes over a well-run bus system; a Legislature that has rightly refused to fund SWLRT (though it gave one-time cash to help with the deficit); and The BNSF Wall. These and problems we do not know about have prevented the Council from requesting federal funds.

Good.

My theory is that the new Chair and Hennepin County are scrambling to save this project—and that they might dump it in favor of the Bottineau LRT instead. Just a hunch but oh, heads would roll and the fur would fly.

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