Why is the Met Council hiding the cost and completion date of light rail line?

The $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit Line is the most expensive public works project ever undertaken in Minnesota. Besides that, it also holds the potential to be the state’s biggest boondoggle, a potential political scandal in the making in the midst of the 2022 election.

Fox 9 News reports the Met Council, the agency overseeing the project, has essentially clammed up, refusing to provide key construction updates on cost and completion date.

Metropolitan Council officials have been overseeing construction of the Southwest Light Rail line for several months without any idea — at least not one they’re willing to say publicly — how long or how much it will cost to finish it.

An updated timeline and cost projection, once expected towards the end of 2021, will now come “sometime in 2022,” Trevor Roy, a project spokesman, told FOX 9. Met Council officials have long acknowledged that the rail line will exceed its original $2 billion budget and estimated 2023 opening. They are now changing tactics to renegotiate the project schedule after criticism from an outside evaluator.

The powerful, unelected agency already admitted months ago to a $200 million spending overrun, prompting nervous DFL legislators tied to support for the controversial line to scurry to get out in front of the likely fallout by calling for more oversight.

The loose timeline, which project officials say is necessary because of the complexity involved with rescheduling construction work, drew criticism from two Minneapolis lawmakers who plan to seek funding for a 2022 audit of the project.

“All we’re asking for is a new cost estimate and a timeline,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee. “This should have been communicated to the public, to the Legislature, and anyone who has an interest in this project months ago.”

Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle has declined to make himself available to give an accounting to the media and public. Other agency officials confirm the obvious: that the cost of the line will far exceed original projections. As for the end date? It’s anyone’s guess.

This summer, Southwest Light Rail tapped a $200 million contingency fund from Hennepin County because of cost overruns. When asked in November whether the contingency fund plus the original $2 billion budget will be enough, project manager Jim Alexander was uncertain and said negotiations over the revised construction schedule need to happen first.

“I can’t necessarily tell you that $2.2 billion is going to be enough,” Alexander said. “There will likely be additional costs needed. We don’t have that identified until we get those schedules understood. The costs will follow.”

As cost overruns mount for taxpayers, the Met Council continues to rubber stamp the expensive requests. But some invoices are raising questions over the agency’s management of the process.

Most change orders sail through the appointed Met Council without dissenting votes. Wednesday, the council approved spending up to $220,000 to repair the Minneapolis-owned Currie Maintenance Facility near downtown after light rail construction work damaged the building. Last week, when asked whether the contractor should be on the hook instead of taxpayers, Alexander said it is “still to be determined.”

So no one’s saying how many more hundreds of millions of dollars the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line will ultimately cost, or when it will be completed. Other than that, the Met Council has everything on track. No wonder nervous DFL legislators claim they want the legislative auditor to take a closer look at the troubled line, even if it means turning their backs on the Met Council.