Lawmakers demand halt to work on scandal-ridden light rail line

There’s growing momentum and pressure on the Met Council to not just audit what went wrong with the scandal-plagued Southwest Light Rail Transit, Line but to flat-out stop construction and potentially kill the controversial project altogether.

The timing of the revelations of the line’s latest mishaps and catastrophic budget overruns could prove fatal if GOP lawmakers get their way in the legislative session just underway, according to the Star Tribune.

Republicans at the State Capitol are pushing to either pause work on the $2.7 billion-plus line while an audit is conducted, or shut it down altogether. The most expensive public works project in state history, Southwest’s price tag a year ago was $2 billion.

“We need a pause on this permanently. This project should have never happened,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

…”I think people fall in love with these projects because they are glamorous,” Daudt said. “You know what, I have model train sets at home. I love trains, but I love them as model trains, not something [like this]. This is the most inefficient thing that government could do and we should pull the pin on this now.”

Or, as GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller put it, “Pause and audit.” But several Democrats were cool to the notion of suspending the project.

The spiraling list of mistakes and miscalculations of the last few weeks exceeds the dire predictions of the project’s most ardent opponents before construction got underway in 2018.

$750 million in projected cost overruns, probably more.

Four years behind scheduled opening, pushed back to 2027.

Cracks in condominiums located inches away from the line.

Rejection of a key Parks Boards construction permit.

An independent audit into the huge cost overruns and related issues.

Failure to be transparent with the public over the brewing scandal.

No wonder the Star Tribune issued an unusually frank plea on its editorial pages for GOP legislators to back off on their demand to suspend construction of what’s becoming the biggest boondoggle in state history and settle for another audit while the Met Council goes full speed ahead.

…We now are more than 60% of the way toward completion. Communities have planned around this line. Developers have projects that hinge on proximity to light rail. Pausing the project would only push costs even higher and threaten existing contracts and funding.

A pause also would most likely add court costs to the mix from developers and contractors seeking legal remedies. If the pause is actually a means to halt it permanently, that would mean pulling out on a critical piece of what will be an integrated Twin Cities mass transit system of rail and bus rapid transit more than 20 years in the making.

Longtime SWLRT insiders from Gov. Tim Walz to Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, say they support an independent audit to find out what went wrong. But there’s been no call to hold the leadership of the Met Council accountable for the hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, starting with Chair Charles Zelle.

If this marks the end of the line for SWLRT, critics say the Met Council might be able to pick up some of the pieces by considering converting the corridor for other transit options.

State Senate President David Osmek, R-Mound, who sits on the Transportation Committee, said he is particularly troubled by the Kenilworth Tunnel and the decision to push ahead despite obvious and serious problems.

“I have been very supportive of bus rapid transit,” Osmek said. “I just don’t believe Southwest light rail is a good use. We need to make sure we know what we’re doing here. It just seems like the Met Council is trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.” Osmek wants to explore whether the line, despite being more than halfway done, could be converted to a dedicated bus line. “It’s got to be less expensive and maybe we can avoid the stupid tunnel,” he said.\