The team working on the beleaguered Southwest Light Rail Transit project is facing challenging decisions as it confronts a ballooning budget nearing $2 billion.
The Metropolitan Council has also pushed back the project’s anticipated completion to 2020. The line is a proposed extension of the Green Line that would run between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.
Metropolitan Council Member Gary Cunningham, a Minneapolis resident, said the project has “significant hurdles to overcome” given the budget increase.
“There is a point where the cost of this project would make it prohibitive,” he said. “We will see. The pause and review the Metropolitan Council chair has ordered is needed and necessary to assess this project’s viability.”
Met Council Chair Adam Duininck announced the updated budget figure April 27 after the project team determined that poor ground conditions, soil contamination and project delays have resulted in a $341 million budget increase — bringing the total budget to $1.994 billion.
The Metro Green Line connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, which made its debut June 2014, cost $957 million. The Blue Line linking Bloomington and Minneapolis cost $715.3 million. It opened in 2004.
“The additional costs for the Southwest LRT Project pose significant challenges for our funding partners and taxpayers,” Duininck said. “I will be talking with our funding partners, local communities and legislative leaders to determine the future of this project — all options are on the table.”
Former Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who was recently appointed to the Met Council by Gov. Mark Dayton, said she gasped when she saw the updated mitigation cost estimates.
“So, now we know, and frankly it’s too high to justify to taxpayers,” she said. “But this transit project is critical for the economic health of our region, so now it’s back to the drawing board with a sharp pencil, as my former colleague said, to trim the costs and get it done.”
She said she hopes the Southwest LRT Project Office can work with cities along the line to come to an agreement about how to trim the budget.
Marion Greene, who succeeded Dorfman on the Hennepin County Board representing the 3rd District, which includes southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, said partners involved in planning the project face a difficult task.
“The revised budget is a serious problem, and the task of all partners involved is to find ways to bring project costs down,” she said. “If we can do that, this project still has enormous public benefit. Further, our collective cost-cutting measures cannot come at the expense of the public engagement process, nor necessary enhancements such as noise mitigation for affected residents.”
When project planners starting designing the LRT line in early 2013 after the completion of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, only about 1 percent level of detail about soil contamination and ground details was available. Additional testing conducted this year provided more information about the soils’ ability to support structures for the line, among others.
Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement April 27 that he was “shocked” and “appalled” to learn of the new estimated cost.
“The continuing escalation of the costs to design and build this line raise serious questions about its viability and affordability,” Dayton said. “I certainly will not recommend that any additional public money be committed to the project until I am satisfied that its cost can be justified and properly managed.”
The Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, which has filed a lawsuit against the Met Council to halt the project until an environmental impact statement is completed, issued a statement saying the group’s lawsuit has been “validated.”
“While we are glad that Adam Duininck acknowledges there are substantial environmental and safety problems, we notice that he still hasn’t released the environmental impact statement,” the group stated. “We hope he does so very soon. For many months the public has been tying itself in knots over this project — which is, at $2 billion, the costliest public works project in state history — and has not been well served by the secrecy surrounding it.”
Roughly half of the project’s funding is expected to come from the Federal Transit Administration with the remainder from the State of Minnesota, the Counties Transit Improvement Board and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority.
In March, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Metropolitan Council ended a dispute over the project when the Park Board agreed to a bridge over the Kenilworth Channel instead of a tunnel for light-rail trains.
The Minneapolis City Council voted 10-3 to grant municipal consent for the Southwest LRT project Aug. 29, 2014.
City leaders, however, lamented that the light rail and freight rail trains in the Kenilworth Corridor would be co-located. They said there was a promise that the freight trains would be rerouted during the early stages of the Southwest LRT planning process.
“There is not going to be a celebration,” Hodges said after the Council vote. “There is no victory lap on this one.”
As currently proposed, the line would have 17 new stations, including five in Minneapolis — Royalston, Van White, Penn, 21st Street and West Lake.
More than 199,000 jobs and 63,000 people are currently located within one-half mile of the line, according to the Metropolitan Council.
Planners are anticipating 34,000 weekday boardings by 2030.
— Eric Best contributed to this report