Estimated cost for Southwest light rail rises again

Met Council blames “inaction by House leadership” for costly delays

The estimated cost for Southwest Light Rail Transit hit nearly $1.86 billion this week and threatens to continue rising as the project nears a critical turning point.

The Metropolitan Council votes tonight on an update project scope, schedule and cost estimate for the project, a 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line that will add tracks between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The cost was estimated at $1.79 billion earlier this summer.

The Met Council says two factors are driving the cost increase since then: $69 million worth of in-kind land donations to the project which must be counted toward the overall budget; and $19 million attributed to project delays, due to what the agency describes as “inaction by House leadership.”

The Minnesota Legislature adjourned in May without a plan to fund the remaining portion of its 10-percent share of the project, which was at that time about $135 million. Earlier this year, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck laid the blame squarely on Speaker Kurt Daudt (R–Zimmerman) and his fellow Republicans in the House.

Despite ongoing talk of a potential special session, Gov. Mark Dayton has not yet called lawmakers back to the Capitol.

Federal funds are expected to cover half the cost of SWLRT planning and construction. They’ll also cover half the recent cost increases chalked up to delays, leaving state and local governments on the hook for $9.5 million.

But the responsibility for covering similar shortfalls shifts as the project advances.

Pending a “yes” vote from the Met Council tonight, SWLRT project staff plan to submit their application to the Federal Transit Administration to begin the engineering phase of the project. Project designs, already close to 90-percent complete, will be finalized, and Met Council can then prepare construction bid packages for contractors.

From there, the next step is to confirm the funding agreement with the federal government, which would lock in the project budget, explained Met Council spokesperson Kate Brickman.

“Once we lock in this number, if we continue to incur delay costs, those will not be matched,” Brickman said.

House Republicans fired back at Met Council this week in a press release issued by Rep. Tony Albright (R–Prior Lake), who wrote that members of his party were “committed first and foremost to take care of our roads and bridges,” which he contended were used by 99 percent of Minnesotans “as their primary mode of transportation.”

Albright added that there are “bipartisan questions” about whether the nearly $2-billion SWLRT project “is a worthy use of taxpayer dollars.”