Metropolitan Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff announced a four-month extension to the deadline for Southwest Light Rail Transit civil construction bids Tuesday, the latest in a series of delays for the nearly $1.9 billion project.
The deadline for construction bids was extended to May 3 from Jan. 9, pushing the line’s projected opening date into 2023 from 2022. The extension was made to accommodate several recent developments, including the Federal Transit Administration’s determination that a mile-long crash wall added to the project this summer will require environmental review.
Met Council is now planning to conduct not one but two parallel studies of the crash wall’s potential environmental impact. The FTA is requiring a supplemental environmental assessment, and Met Council also plans to complete an environmental assessment worksheet, a similar type of review that is governed by state instead of federal environmental law.
Late last week, State Rep. Frank Hornstein described Met Council’s agreement to move ahead with the worksheet as “a positive development” that would increase public involvement and transparency as the agency develops designs for the wall.
“It’s a major step,” Hornstein said. “This was something they fought tooth and nail against.”
State Sen. Scott Dibble, who had also called on Met Council to agree to a more public process, said he wasn’t concerned about adding to a series of project delays.
“The project has to be done right,” he said.
The 10-foot-high barrier will separate light rail and freight trains running on parallel tracks through a corridor owned by BNSF. Extending from about Interstate 94 to Interstate 394, the crash wall was added to plans when the railway and Met Council reached a shared-use agreement for the corridor in August.
In an emailed statement, Tchourumoff said the extension of the bidding deadline would allow for a 45-day public review and comment period after the environmental reviews are completed. Met Council is also planning a town hall meeting for area residents.
Once the reviews are completed, Met Council will be eligible for a letter of no prejudice from the FTA. That letter is required before Met Council can award the civil construction contract.
In addition to mitigating environmental impacts, Met Council also must deal with the wall’s potential to alter a railroad corridor considered historically significant. Known as the Wayzata Subdivision, it is part of a much longer railroad corridor a Minnesota Department of Transportation report concluded could be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Addressing contractor concerns
This is the second round of bidding after the Met Council rejected all four civil construction bids submitted late this summer for the SWLRT project, a planned 14.5-mile extension of the METRO Green Line to Eden Prairie. At the time, Tchourumoff said the bids, ranging from $796.5 million to nearly $1.1 billion, were too high.
A Met Council statement also cited “responsiveness issues” in all four of the bids submitted in the first round. It appeared that the bids for civil construction all included subcontractors that had been involved in advanced design work on the project, a violation of FTA rules meant to ensure fair competition.
“Rebidding will allow us to clarify responsiveness issues, as well as to address potential cost issues,” Tchourumoff said in September.
When it announced the extended deadline for the second round, a Met Council statement noted some changes to the bidding process were meant to address “concerns raised by the contracting and engineering communities.” Those changes include shifting the testing and inspection responsibilities previously included in the contract.
Met Council now plans to issue a separate request for proposals for quality management services. The agency’s announcement noted the Minnesota Department of Transportation takes a similar approach to projects, adding that the “approach allows for more flexibility, allowing more subcontractors to propose.”
Met Council plans to award a quality management services contract before construction begins. But just when the agency could finally break ground on the project may not be clear until after the environmental reviews are complete.
“Once the environmental process is complete, we’ll have a more fully informed picture of the overall impact to the project’s schedule and its milestones,” the Met Council statement said.
State Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Hanska Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he was “encouraged” that Met Council was taking steps to open the process to more contractors in a statement issued Tuesday. But Torkelson, a prominent critic of both Met Council and SWLRT, also used the opportunity to describe the project’s planning process as “profoundly expensive and chaotic.”
“The Met Council is facing a projected budget deficit, and every option — including halting operations on SWLRT — should be on the table,” he wrote.