Met Council’s Zelle finally called on the carpet over SWLRT fiasco

The construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line now stands nine years behind schedule, pushed back from 2018 to 2027. At the same time, the cost of the biggest public works project in state history has doubled to $2.74 billion and counting. In fact the boondoggle is so far over budget that it’s more than half a billion dollars short of funding to finish it. No one knows where the last $534 million will come from, or at least, they’re not saying.

All on the watch of the Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle. Yet until now, Zelle has been given a pass on publicly accounting for the fiasco. The damning legislative auditor’s report on the current status of the SWLRT project released last week finally compelled Zelle to vacate his corner office to appear at a joint legislative hearing on the findings.

One of the most startling revelations in the Star Tribune’s account of the Legislative Audit Commission hearing was an extraordinary lack of oversight throughout the project’s history.

Several lawmakers Thursday wondered why the project had not been audited throughout its decades-long history, a process that they said may have unearthed its challenges sooner.

That sort of oversight, they said, would have likely flagged issues with the tunnel construction in Minneapolis, as well as a crash wall required by BNSF Railway west of Target Field to separate freight and light-rail trains that ended up costing $93 million.

“Clearly there appears to be a lack of oversight with this project,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. The legislative auditor’s review comes, she said, “after the horse has been let out of the barn. There should have been a structure in place” for an audit.

The Met Council chair tried to do damage control. But Zelle’s longshot attempt to explain away the scant outside scrutiny of the massive project only served to dig the agency’s hole deeper, raising more questions than answered.

Zelle responded that the FTA and the state auditor review the project, and that there’s been oversight by “engineers within Metro Transit’s orbit.” He also noted that the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which he formerly led as commissioner, is currently conducting a “peer review” of the project.

“Internal people don’t count,” Benson said. “The definition of an audit is independence.”

Zelle didn’t sound any more convincing when responding to legislators’ concerns over the potential for more cost overruns in the remaining four years of scheduled construction work. The agency still hasn’t signed off on an official final cost for the project, which hardly instills confidence in the outcome.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, chair of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, pressed Zelle on whether $534 million will be enough to complete the project.

Zelle noted he wasn’t aware of additional costs but that there was still some risk associated with the project, particularly with construction of the tunnel for light-rail trains in the narrow Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis. “We’re hopeful we’re on track,” he said.

The $2.74 billion project is now more than 60% complete, and Zelle said it would cost “drastically more” to abandon the project now. The report notes that the Met Council has not yet approved a final price tag; at this point, that figure is still unknown.

Unless the agency finds a solution to the current $534 million shortfall in funding, Zelle acknowledged construction on the problematic project will shut down next summer. But not to worry. Zelle asked legislators to give him until the end of the year (after the election?) to plug the gap in funding, while refusing to divulge how he plans to do it in the best Met Council tradition.

“This gap is something we are actively working on with our partners,” Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said during an hourlong meeting Thursday of the Legislative Audit Commission. “I have confidence we will have an answer by the end of the year. It’s important for the project to move forward. It’s in the region’s best interest.”

Zelle declined to identify a potential source for the funding. So far the 14.5-mile line between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie has been funded from federal, state and local coffers.