Cracks appear in Met Council support for light rail funding

The steady stream of revelations exposing the Met Council’s incompetence in managing the botched Southwest Light Rail Line still under construction finally appears to be rattling some members’ cages at the largely unaccountable agency. The lack of transparency behind a surprise agreement unveiled between the Met Council and Hennepin County to cover the project’s $272 million cost overrun didn’t sit well with some members.

The agency issued a news release as if the funding arrangement was a done deal.

The Metropolitan Council in partnership with Hennepin County has resolved the current funding deficit for the Green Line Extension Light Rail Transit Line

The two entities have collaborated for several months to define funding sources and reach a resolution to close the remaining funding gap. A funding agreement has been reached where the Met Council and County will share equally in funding the gap in capital and startup costs.

But the development took many Met Council board members by complete surprise, according to the Star Tribune.

An agreement to close an estimated $272 million shortfall in the Southwest light-rail project budget has drawn criticism from some members of the Metropolitan Council, who said they weren’t consulted before the deal was announced last week.

The $2.7 billion Southwest line — the most-expensive public works project in state history — is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie beginning in 2027.

But Met Council members, facing intense scrutiny about the way the way they oversee public transportation projects in the Twin Cities, have paused their planning on light-rail projects to collect more information before a key decision next month on funding the Blue Line Extension — giving them more time to look at the bigger financial picture.

There’s still no indication of who was responsible for negotiating and approving the deal on behalf of the Met Council behind the members’ backs. No doubt feeling the heat from increased public pressure, some board members were in no mood to conduct business as usual and let it go.

But at several Met Council meetings last week, some members expressed frustration with the proposal and said it wasn’t properly vetted before it was announced.

Others said they worried the federal funds going to Southwest for the next three years will mean other transportation projects throughout the seven-county metro will get short shrift — including a longstanding goal to add more electric buses to Metro Transit’s fleet.

The ensuing discussion was a rare break for council members, who generally agree with staff-directed recommendations.

Moreover, some members candidly discussed their concerns over the ridership future for light rail and other public transportation, given the huge decline following the pandemic. The SWLRT boondoggle may be a blessing in disguise by forcing the agency to confront the harsh financial and ridership issues before them while there’s still time to turn back.

“I have concerns about post-COVID ridership and building two [light-rail] megaprojects at a time,” said Council Member Deb Barber.

While Barber, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee, said she supports extending the Blue Line, she said council members need more time to consider the projects “so we know what we’re voting on.”

Council Member Judy Johnson agreed: “I think it’s important that the council take a breath and be deliberate.”

No one realistically expects the Met Council to pull the plug on the Blue Line extension. But some members appear to be running out of patience with the embattled agency’s staff and inability to change under Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle.