Southwest Light Rail Project Plagued by Delays and Over-Spending

Written by Jennifer McLawhorn, Managing Editor
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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – The Southwest Light Rail has seen delays and over-spending, partly due to the lack of oversight from the Metropolitan Council with its contractors.

Minnesota Reformer recently reported on Southwest Light Rail’s over spending and project delays due to the Metropolitan Council’s failure “to enforce its agreements with its contractors, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the project’s cost and causing further delays.” The council is made up of members who have been appointed by the governor.

According to the Met Council’s website, the Green Line Extension (a.k.a. the Southwest Light Rail project) “is a generational investment in our region’s transit system that adds 14.5 miles to the existing METRO Green Line, which connects downtown Minneapolis, downtown Saint Paul, and places in between.”

While the project’s construction is “about 75% complete”, there have been quite a few delays. The original opening date was slated to occur sometime in 2018 before it was pushed to 2023. Currently, the plan is to open the line in four years after an “estimated cost of $2.77 billion.” The delays have pushed the line ten years behind with “at least $1.5 billion over budget.” This is the third audit of the council’s agreement with the contractors with a fourth and final audit “investigating the project’s financing” released this Fall.

Previous audits in September and March went into Southwest Light Rail’s budget and schedule as well as “how the Met Council made numerous errors in its oversight.” This third audit analyzed the “relationship between the Met Council and two of its contractors: Lunda McCrossan Joint Venture and AECOM Technical Services.”

What the audit found was that design changes caused the original plan to be altered and pushed back during construction. These changes require “the contractor to file ‘change orders’, which when approved often increase the cost and time needed to complete construction.” Over the last few years, these change orders have reached well into the hundreds (658, to be exact) and have risen the total cost by about $220 million. 

Judy Randall, a Legislative Auditor, has been reported as saying that the Met Council did not enforce these agreements with contractors because it was “very unreluctant to use the tools they had” and did not withhold funds for fear of losing the contractor altogether.

While Charles Zelle, Met Council Chair, opened with the argument that costs rise simply because they do, and that the project was initially “underbudgeted . . . [with]a suppressed funding budget, and it’s simply not a $2 billion project.”, Senator Mark Koran responded that there is “no evidence that the Legislature should trust the Met Council to complete the project responsibly.”

Zelle has commented on remaining open to suggestions for improvements, but other senators, namely Senator Scott Dibble, “said there is something wrong with the culture within the Met Council.” Citing a recent popular concert tour as an example, the Met Council “could not commit extra trains to help the thousands of concert-goers get home late at night, citing staffing shortages. . . [before] eventually [committing] extra trains after a public backlash.”

Senator Dibble went on to comment on the Southwest Rail Line’s delays and over-spending, specifically that it should never “have gotten to this point,” and that the issues the audit found have “to do with a culture in which there’s a complete lack of sensitivity and responsiveness and attunement to the public responsibility, the public duties that it has.” Only time will tell when the final audit is released if the Metropolitan Council has finally reinforced its original agreements with contractors to bring the Southwest Light Rail to fruition.

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