Legislative auditor: Light rail line is 9 years late and $500 million short

The Met Council continues to plug away on the construction of the troubled Southwest Line Rail Transit line as though there’s no tomorrow. And at some point there may not be. The agency has no idea where the half a billion dollars currently projected to complete the biggest public works boondoggle in state history will come from.

That’s one of the key findings of the first phase of the state legislative auditor’s newly released report highlighted in the Star Tribune.

Though the cost of the Southwest light-rail line has doubled to $2.7 billion over the past decade, the Metropolitan Council is still short more than $500 million to meet its budget, according to a special review released Friday by the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor.

It’s unclear where the additional money — nearly 20% of Southwest’s current budget — will come from, signaling a looming crisis for the state’s most expensive public works project. The total price of the 14.5-mile line connecting Minneapolis to Eden Prairie has not been finalized, either.

The report raises serious questions about the Met Council’s management of the green line extension, now scheduled to open in 2027, nine years later than originally planned. The bidding process in particular came under the nonpartisan auditor’s scrutiny.

One especially stark fact revealed in Friday’s report: The Met Council purposely omitted from the bid package sent to potential contractors a station in Eden Prairie and a $93 million crash wall required by BNSF Railway to separate freight and light-rail trains in Minneapolis.

This meant the cost of these additions had to be largely be taken from the project’s contingency budget — including a change order of nearly $83 million for the mile-long crash wall, west of Target Field. The cost of the Eden Prairie station was partly offset by a federal grant and funding from the city.

An unnamed Met Council official quoted in the report said there were concerns that including the two in the bid package would cause delays, possibly limit interest in the project from the construction community and result in higher costs.

The second phase of the legislative audit will provide recommendations stemming from the facts laid out in the first report. But critics have already seized on the findings to press the Met Council for answers.

Rep. John Petersburg of Waseca, the GOP leader on the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said the Met Council “has a responsibility to explain why a multibillion-dollar project continues to face mismanagement and delays at the expense of the taxpayer, as well as how it will pay for the deficit in funding.”

Many are worried that Hennepin County taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

“This document proves Southwest light rail is the worst financial and environmental public works disaster Minnesota has experienced in its entire history, and it was completely avoidable,” said Mary Pattock, spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, a Minneapolis nonprofit that sued the Met Council in 2014 for alleged violation of state and federal environmental laws.

“If the Met Council had listened to residents about the problems with the Kenilworth route, we’d probably have light-rail trains running today, and for a reasonable cost,” Pattock said.

There will be many more questions focused on the Met Council’s management and transparency at a legislative hearing today.