Much Ado About Something at the Met Council

A series of curious events over the last six weeks related to the Southwest Light Rail project and key personnel at the Met Council suggest disarray at the Twin Cities’ unelected “regional authority”.

First, with respect to the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) project, the Met Council has been battling lawsuits, its own misleading practices, and various self-inflicted delays in an effort to secure nearly a billion dollars in matching federal funding.

One final battle appeared to be a lawsuit filed by the Twin Cities & Western railroad (TC&W) in opposition to the Council’s somewhat convoluted plan to buy and manage a critical rail corridor, without which SWLRT cannot not operate. All that needs to be settled by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). Per the STB-arranged mediation agreement on this, the Met Council wanted the issue resolved between the two parties by June 21st this year, and they declared the organization “needs” a final disposition on the situation from the STB by July 12th. But as we’ll see, the Council hadn’t even reached a settlement with the TC&W by that July date, much less resolved the matter with the STB.

On June 27th, in the middle of this delay, the Council’s Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff popped up on the radar as the front-runner and default candidate to take over as County Manager of Ramsey County – the top job in the jurisdiction. What’s striking about that is that the county’s budget is considerably smaller than the Met Council’s ($734 million vs. the Council’s budget of more than $1 billion), and the Council is less accountable with arguably more power than the county to shape the landscape of the Twin Cities. Less authority, smaller budget, and more oversight – why would she do that?

Then in a strange twist, on July 3rd Ramsey County commissioners decided to call back a previously rejected internal candidate for the role, Ryan O’Connor, who was then awarded the job over Tchourumoff.

Fast forward to the middle of July, and we still hadn’t heard anything on the critical mediation agreement between the TC&W railroad and the Met Council regarding SWLRT. Finally on July 19th, nearly a month after the June 21st deadline, an agreement was announced that would pay the railroad $18.5 million to settle the lawsuit – nearly $2.5 million than the initial offer to the railroad. But what’s another couple of million of taxpayer dollars when the SWLRT project cost has already jumped 60% to more than $2 billion?

Perhaps the biggest impact of all this was buried towards the bottom of this article from the Southwest Journal – given the various delays, Tchourumoff doesn’t expect the Federal Transportation Administration to consider awarding its nearly $1 billion of support for SWLRT until sometime in the first half of 2019. That is of course after Minnesota’s gubernatorial election could produce a GOP governor who could lobby Washington to reject the funding grant–and also save Hennepin County taxpayers a billion local dollars in the process, plus tens of millions in annual operating costs followed by capital replacement down the line.

Finally, after missed deadlines, cost increases and surprising news about the Met Council’s top leader, another shoe dropped on August 2nd when the Council’s longtime light rail leader and transit agency Deputy General Manager Mark Fuhrmann suddenly retired with no apparent succession plan in place. Curiously, “Fuhrmann declined to comment on his impending retirement.”

This is all conjecture at this point, but it’s hard to imagine there is a positive reason for the two highest-profile leaders of the Southwest Light Rail project to make public decisions to (try to) step down from their roles at this critical juncture of the project. My optimistic reading of the matter is that they see the writing on the wall for SWLRT as a spectacular failure, and they are jumping off the train before the crash. As a taxpayer, I certainly hope that is the case. Stay tuned!