Light rail boondoggle wins inaugural Golden Turkey Lifetime Achievement

When the Golden Turkey committee gathered to discuss nominations for this year’s award, the Met Council’s Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) project was at the top of the list. It fit a lot of the benchmarks we were looking for. It’s a boondoggle project sponsored by government. It deals with transportation, a category that has dominated Golden Turkey nominations and eventual winners. And it is well known to the public, having been in the news since the Met Council started the project in 2010 and the Minnesota legislature first approved funding in 2014.

But the committee had a problem. Recent cost overruns and delays have drawn universal criticism. Republicans, Democrats, the media, the legislative auditor, local government leaders — no one has been afraid to pile on this wasteful project. Southwest Light Rail would clearly win the 2022 Golden Turkey award if it was nominated in the normal process.

So the committee is taking a different approach. Because this boondoggle has been with us for so long and doesn’t appear to be going away soon, the decision was made to award the Southwest Light Rail Transit project and the Metropolitan Council the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. In other words, it’s going straight to the Hall of Fame.

Beginning of a boondoggle

From the beginning, the SWLRT budget was eye-popping: $1.25 billion for 15.8 miles of track connecting Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis. The line was supposed to open in 2018.

As with all transit boondoggles, SWLRT began with a relatively small appropriation from the legislature to “study” routes and possibilities. In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature granted $37 million to the Met Council to hire staff, open an office, and start planning. Once that happens, the inertia to build is almost unstoppable, with the Rush Line in Ramsey County being one notable exception. “We’ve spent this much, we can’t turn back now” becomes the rallying cry of bureaucrats and urban planners everywhere.

The first big problem for SLWRT was the railroads. Railroad companies are notoriously hard to negotiate with about access to their tracks and corridors and they immediately put up roadblocks to the most logical routes from Eden Prairie to downtown. Planners wanted to move the freight tracks owned and operated by the railroads. The railroads refused, causing the SWLRT project to share the corridor with freight trains, setting up a difficult engineering problem between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

You can’t change the laws of physics

There was not enough room for freight trains and commuter rail, so the geniuses at the Met Council said, “Let’s build a tunnel!” Construction of a half-mile underground tunnel through a very narrow corridor would increase the cost, delay the opening date, and test the laws of physics. It also caused cracks to appear in a nearby condominium tower, surprising no one.

This was the moment in time that planners could have and should have stopped. The original route wouldn’t work. The tunnel was too expensive and risky. The project should be shelved.

But of course, that didn’t happen and in October 2013 the Met Council switched gears and began promoting their “colocation” plan for SWLRT that required the tunnel.

As of this writing, the project cost has ballooned to at least $2.74 billion and is set to open in 2027, almost ten years behind schedule. The Met Council needs to plug a $500 million hole in the project and Chair Charlie Zelle told reporters he would announce “soon” where that money would come from. Hennepin County has said they are done throwing money at the project and the federal and state governments are also not willing to add more funding. Zelle’s timeline of “soon” means after the 2022 election and most suspect he plans to raid other programs and budgets at the Met Council to pay for the Southwest Light Rail overages. 

With no end in sight and no turning back, the Southwest Light Rail Transit boondoggle of all boondoggles becomes the first ever Golden Turkey Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Don’t forget to vote for the 2022 Golden Turkey Award