Why the Southwest Light Rail Transit fiasco was wholly avoidable

The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a scathing report in March on the Golden Turkey Winner Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT), criticizing the Met Council for, among other things:

  1. soliciting “bids for the civil construction portion of Southwest LRT with project specifications it knew to be incomplete”
  2. making changes to the project after the bid which delayed the construction
  3. not holding “its civil construction contractor accountable for repeated failures to provide an acceptable project schedule”
  4. not being “fully transparent about the project’s increasing costs and delays” and
  5. not adequately communicating “to the public the uncertainty surrounding its estimates of future costs

Now the company responsible for the construction is hitting back, claiming that the Auditor’s report is damaging not only to the construction company, but also to the Met Council and taxpayers. In documents obtained by the Star Tribune, Lunda McCrossan Joint Venture (LMJV) claims that the project’s cost overruns and delays are due to:

a “deficient design” crafted long before ground was broken on the project nearly five years ago

According to the Star Tribune, LMJV

also take aim at the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor, calling its critical reports on the project “inaccurately reported or incorrectly interpreted” and “lacking any apparent experience or expertise.”

The Southwest LRT is not new to drama. The 14.5-mile stretch of rail, an extension of the Green Line intended to connect Eden Prairie with Minneapolis, was supposed to open in 2017 but is running ten years behind schedule. Now the project will supposedly open in 2027 — assuming nothing else comes up — costing more than double the initial estimated $1.25 billion.

This could have been avoided

The problems facing the construction of the Southwest LRT are not new. They had been documented before the construction of the project began in 2019. In a 2015 report, Mckinsey, for example, documented a recurring problem with megaprojects — they often run over time and over cost. In fact, according to a Cato Institute policy brief published in 2017, nine out of ten megaprojects run over budget. Even the construction company LMJV itself was likely aware of the problems associated with megaprojects, as it provided a paper to the Office of the Legislative Auditor detailing difficulties “not only with the Southwest Project but other megaprojects across the country.”

According to the report from the Auditor, the Met Council has taken the blame for the delays in the project. But regardless of who is to blame and who isn’t, it’s easy to see that this whole fiasco could have been avoided by not building the rail in the first place.

From the very beginning, the evidence was there that building the Southwest LRT was a risky undertaking.