Met Council could pay millions for light rail construction damages under proposed legislation

The Met Council would be required to pay potentially millions of dollars to condominium owners for damages, legal and other fees stemming from construction of the Southwest Light Rail line, as well as guarantee the units would be safe to occupy moving forward under a measure before the Minnesota Legislature.

It’s not clear how much of a role construction played in cracks discovered at the Minneapolis condominium complex that borders the light rail line. A study commissioned by the Met Council included construction as one of several lesser possible causes. But a legislative provision to protect property owners remains on the table as the session heads toward adjournment, according to the Star Tribune.

“People living [at Cedar Isles] are extremely frustrated,” [Minneapolis DFL Sen. Scott] Dibble said. “They can’t even get real estate agents to come in if they want to sell their home; they’re told it can’t be listed.”

Dibble’s amendment was approved last week. While there’s no guarantee it will be adopted in the waning hours of the legislative session, it appears to have bipartisan support.

“Your home is probably the single greatest asset that you have in your lifetime,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, chair of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy committee, who supports Dibble’s amendment. “Imagine the government comes in and all of a sudden your home is worthless.”

The legislative pressure comes as the Met Council prepares to resume construction of the controversial tunnel adjacent to the condominiums after being halted since January. If the amendment becomes law as part of the omnibus transportation bill, it will only add to the controversial transit line’s massive cost overruns.

Any costs related to the amendment will be borne by the Southwest project — not by the state. The project’s budget has ballooned due in part to the complicated tunnel construction in the Kenilworth Corridor.

In January, the council said the project’s overall cost would soar by $450 million to $550 million, totaling up to $2.75 billion — making it the most expensive public works project in state history. The project is about 60% complete.

The amendment includes several other requirements that would increase the Met Council’s financial liability for the fallout from the line’s construction. One provision would make property owners eligible for payments from the agency to offset any loss in market value of their units since construction of the line.

The amendment also requires the council to provide free office space for Cedar Isles residents who can no longer work from home because of interruptions from Southwest construction.

And the council must reimburse the condominium association any costs it has incurred in recent years to hire engineers and lawyers for expert advice about Southwest construction — a bill that has tallied about $250,000 so far.

“We are very thankful for this,” said Russ Palma, a Cedar Isles resident and vice president of the condo association. “We really need to counter this David and Goliath feeling we have with the Met Council. We are worried we’ll be steamrolled by the council. They have so many resources that we don’t have.”

The response by the Met Council’s embattled chairman to KSTP-TV probably hasn’t won the agency any more friends among lawmakers who’ve already ordered an audit of the project earlier in the session.

During an interview for that report, Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle stopped short of promising to compensate the condo owners impacted by construction.

“I don’t think compensation. I can’t speak to that,” Zelle said. “I think it’s much more about how can we continue the project and what can we do for this building.”

Senate President David Osmek, R-Mound, says he is frustrated with the Met Council’s response so far.

“I just have to shake my head,” Osmek said. “This is a classic example of why the Met Council has to be fixed. They are not responsive. They are not responsible. They are not elected.”