The unfolding Southwest Light Rail Transit scandal

Judging by the Met Council and Southwest Light Rail Transit’s regular e-updates for the public, the most expensive public works project in Minnesota history appears to be right on track. The latest weekly construction update even features a virtual fly-over touting the great headway being made on the now more than $2 billion dollar boondoggle.

Along the Southwest LRT corridor significant progress has been made on most of our structures and stations. To have a better idea of what the line will look like, check out this drone video that captures highlights from the 14.5-mile-long corridor and its impressive structures…

Meantime, the Met Council’s latest e-newsletter directs readers to the SWLRT website page, which still promises a 2023 startup for the controversial 14.5 mile line — a flat-out misrepresentation.

Some update. Not a word about what Twin Cities Business recently referred to as “Southwest LRT’s Rocky Mess” with “delays and cost overruns [that] will be measured in years and hundreds of millions of dollars.” In reality, insiders say, the line will not be ready to roll until 2025 or 2026, if then — if ever.

Ever since word started to leak out last fall that the Kenilworth tunnel construction was stuck in a sloppy mess of water and boulders, contractors and Met Council officials have known the line could not meet its opening estimates, and that tunnel costs could blow through the project’s contingency fund. But the agency insists even today that it cannot estimate the magnitude of delay nor additional cost.

But the Met Council breezily represents the financial and environmental disaster unfolding in the Kenilworth tunnel this way on its website. Nothing to see here!

Tunnel construction continues. Crews have poured base concrete slabs and will advance the structure of the tunnel. Expect noise from excavators, generators and pumps for water management, concrete application, and drilling. Current and upcoming work include: Preparation work for excavation near the Cedar Isles Condominiums continues through summer.

But neighborhood groups in the tony area who would normally be cheerleaders for public transit have completely lost confidence in the agency, especially those in a condominium whose foundation “comes within inches” of the excavation work underway.

Nearby Minneapolis lakes neighborhood groups long believed the tunneling endangered the condo foundations and portended many other environmental and construction ills, going so far as to file a federal environmental lawsuit, which failed. They were repeatedly assured by the Met Council that the project as designed would be safe and readily buildable.

“They called us NIMBYs, rich people who just wanted not to be bothered,” says Mary Pattock, former chair of the Cedar Isles Dean neighborhood board and longtime critic of the LRT routing. Echoing Rep. Hornstein, she says, “we told them the geology between the lakes was messy. We told them there was not room to build a tunnel safely. We told them you are going to run into problems you are not going to be able to solve. Now it’s all coming true.”

To date, the Met Council has carried on by largely ignoring critics. But now the agency has lost the support of two of SWLRT’s most influential liberal legislative advocates. In a sure sign of more trouble ahead, Sen. Scott Dibble, (DFL-Minneapolis) and Rep. Frank Hornstein, (DFL-Minneapolis) have taken the unusual step of asking the state’s top watchdog to undertake an expedited probe of the project.

The legislative pressure comes with Hennepin County expected to approve an additional $200 million in taxpayer funding to keep SWLRT afloat, according to the Star Tribune.

The cash infusion to Southwest’s waning contingency is expected to be approved Tuesday by the County Board and Aug. 11 by the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing construction of the 14.5-mile line linking downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

“Cost overruns are always undesirable, but we appreciate the magnitude and complexity of this project and recognize unforeseen challenges are bound to arise when constructing a public works infrastructure project of this scale,” County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said in an e-mail.

When that well of taxpayer dollars runs dry? Advocates brag about the feds’ open checkbook in DC.

Commissioner Debbie Goettel said the county may explore ways to draw additional federal funding, whether from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package or another source.

“There’s a different tenor in Washington about these projects,” she said.

It’s going to be quite a ride from here on out for SWLRT. Regardless of the Met Council’s smug posture, you get the feeling reading between the lines of TCB’s piece, no one really knows where it’s going.

The $2 billion project continues to book change orders and eat away at contingency funds. The primary $203 million contingency fund is basically exhausted, according to public documents. An additional $200 million contingency, demanded by federal transit regulators, remains to be tapped. No one is quite clear if that will be enough to deal with the remaining overruns.