Met Council stymied investigation into SWLRT cost overruns and delays

The Met Council has finally lost the Twin Cities media when it comes to the boondoggle known as the Southwest Light Rail Transit project. The headlines for the release of the state legislative auditor’s latest report on the agency’s mismanagement of the biggest public works project in state history say it all.

Star Tribune: Met Council wasn’t transparent about Southwest light rail cost overruns, delays, legislative auditor says

MinnPost: Minnesota lawmakers ‘speechless’ after scathing legislative audit report on Southwest light rail transit

MPR: Auditor’s report finds Southwest Light Rail project has governance issues

The highly critical findings of the legislative watchdog’s second report on the hopelessly over-budget and behind-schedule light rail line still under construction from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie were summarized by MinnPost:

So much bad news has flowed from the Met Council and its Southwest light rail transit project that a harsh report from the state’s legislative auditor might be seen as just more of the same.

“Minnesota has a mismatch between the entities that fund the construction of light rail transit projects and the entities responsible for constructing them,” wrote the Office of the Legislative Auditor in a special report requested by the Legislature. “We also found that the Metropolitan Council obligated itself to spend money it did not have, added or changed substantial work after the project was bid, and was not fully transparent about the project’s increasing costs and delays.”

Yet it’s not only the completion of the green line extension that’s been subject to delay. The Met Council has also held up the legislative watchdog’s efforts to investigate the agency’s bungled management of the 14-mile line originally projected to open in 2018.

[Legislative Auditor Judy] Randall was asked by [Sen. Scott] Dibble about the level of cooperation from the Met Council, detailing his own struggles to get information.

“The Metropolitan Council was not as cooperative as most state agencies are when we come calling,” Randall said. “We did ask for a lot of information but with every request, the Metropolitan Council requested an extension on the deadline. We often had to make requests several times.

“Ultimately they provided most of what we requested, but it required a lot of back and forth, it required a lot of follow up,” she said. While her office had hoped to provide a more-complete report now, it decided to break the reporting into parts in order to get some information to the Legislature more quickly. She blamed that decision on the slowness in Met Council responses.

The revelation that the agency withheld timely access to legislative investigators did not go over well with lawmakers of either political party.

“That being said, we did not issue a subpoena, and we have the ability to do that, but it did not rise to that level,” Randall said. Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said he was shocked to hear the OLA “was inches” from issuing subpoenas. But Randall said after the meeting that she didn’t use that term, saying instead that it is a tool that the auditor can use to get information but that she hadn’t reached the point of preparing such a legal document.

Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said the OLA is empowered as the sole performance auditor of the state and said agencies must be “extremely cooperative.” Of the Met Council, Koran said it is becoming less cooperative and less forthcoming.

“I find it completely unacceptable that the legislative auditor has to delay because of these continued delays,” Koran said. “We cannot tolerate that.”

Despite continued stonewalling, the legislative auditor intends to issue another report this spring that’s certain to further reveal the extent to which the rogue agency has gone off the rails.

We will release our second program evaluation in the Spring of 2023. That report will
focus more closely on the Metropolitan Council’s processes for controlling costs,
particularly with respect to project changes and situations where a contractor did not
meet contract requirements.