Probe examines whether bungled light rail project threatens condo complex

The Met Council’s attempt to force through the Southwest Light Rail Transit line has finally sparked the scrutiny that the biggest public works construction in Minnesota history should have received in the first place. After months of stonewalling the public on the project’s status, the Met Council has admitted the 14.5 mile line will be four years behind schedule and well over half a billion dollars over budget, raising questions whether it should be completed at all.

The hottest flashpoint concerns the half-mile Kenilworth tunnel and whether it poses a threat to a condominium complex. Construction is halted for a month and a half, the Star Tribune says, for an investigation into whether the project poses a threat to the buildings and residents.

While the Met Council has assured condo residents that their building is safe, many remain deeply concerned about whether their homes are secure and how cracking issues will affect property values.

Their confidence was further rattled when a water main broke near the Southwest construction two weeks ago, flooding their parking garage.

“This whole thing is giving me a pit in my stomach,” said one resident during a meeting last month of the Cedar Isles Condominium Association (CICA) with Southwest officials and their consultants that was closed to the public. A recording of the meeting, attended by 76 residents and others, was provided to the Star Tribune by a person who was there.

“We are human beings living and working here,” a resident said. “This is our home. I’m afraid this whole thing will collapse

Met Council officials have hired a highly regarded firm with a history of investigating high-profile projects and problems to get to the bottom of what’s going on. It’s a striking indication of the seriousness of the stakes involved.

Over the past four decades, [CEO of of Socotec Engineering Robert] Vecchio has helped investigate many high-profile accident and disaster sites. They include the 1989 Exxon Valdez hull rupture, which caused millions of gallons of oil to spill into Alaska’s Prince William Sound; the 1993 World Trade Center bombing site in New York City; and the rescue and recovery efforts following the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Closer to home, Vecchio said he investigated the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

The probe will likely take until the end of the month to provide nervous condo residents with answers. True to form, the Met Council does not have a handle on how much the investigation will add to the project’s cost overruns.

“Continuing to live in the high-rise building without further construction is significantly and immeasurably risky,” wrote resident Maria Henly, in a recent letter to the Met Council and elected officials. “Continuing to live in the high-rise building with any additional construction activity is dangerous and insane.”

Henly requested that work on Southwest stop within 300 feet of the CICA property while the building is occupied, and for the council to purchase the condos at their value prior to construction. Either way, she wrote that she plans on moving out of her home of 11 years as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, other individuals with claims over the project’s alleged impact on their property have come forward, even as the Met Council faces the likely prospect of yet another investigation by the Legislative Auditor expected to be approved by state lawmakers.