Met Council: Bids for Southwest light rail construction too high

Rejecting bids would delay project at least four months, add to cost

A METRO Green Line light rail train at Target Field Station. The nearly $1.9 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project would extend the line another 14.5 miles to Eden Prairie. File photo

The new chair of the Metropolitan Council on Sept. 11 recommended that all four civil construction bids for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project be rejected, likely delaying the project at least four months and pushing the projected opening date into 2022.

Four bids for the majority of construction work on the 14.5-mile extension of the Metro Green Line were submitted in August, ranging from $796.5 million to nearly $1.1 billion. All four bids were too high and also had “responsiveness issues,” according to a statement issued by the Met Council.

“We don’t make this recommendation lightly,” Chair Alene Tchourumoff said during a Sept. 13 meeting of the Met Council. “I think we would not recommend pursuing this path if we didn’t think it was absolutely necessary.”

The Met Council was scheduled to vote on Tchourumoff’s recommendation at its Sept. 20 meeting, held after this edition went to press.

The total project budget is nearly $1.9 billion, but Met Council Chief Financial Officer Mary Bogie said the amount budgeted for civil construction work is not public data while the procurement process is ongoing. Project components accounted for in the bids included 153,000 feet of track, 29 bridges, two cut-and-cover light rail tunnels, six pedestrian tunnels, eight park-and-ride facilities and 15 light rail stations.

The low bid came from a joint venture between Ames Construction of Burnsville and Kraemer North America, based in Plains, Wisconsin. Ron Ames, senior vice president and Midwest regional manager of Ames Construction, testified at the Sept. 13 Met Council meeting that his company “spent many, many hours and millions of dollars” assembling the bid, and asked for the opportunity to meet with the agency’s engineers for more information on where their bid fell short.

“I would like to sit down and try to work this out,” Ames said. “It’s a big hardship for both companies and for our construction families that have been counting on this work to start.”

Tchourumoff said Met Council engineers would work on “innovative cost-reduction strategies” before reopening the bidding process in October. Bogie indicated that the updated bid documents would help the contractors zero-in on the agency’s target.

“Rebidding will allow us to clarify responsiveness issues, as well as to address potential cost issues,” she said.

Tchourumoff also acknowledged the risk in moving on to a second round of bids, saying there was “no certainty” they would come in lower. She said she discussed the plan with officials from the Federal Transit Administration on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. and was assured this “has happened in other regions.”

“That was somewhat comforting to know we aren’t alone in dealing with challenges related to rejecting bids based on price and responsiveness,” she said.

Under the new timeline, the Met Council expects to award the SWLRT civil construction contract in the first quarter of 2018. Construction would begin later that year and run through 2021, with the first passengers riding light rail trains between Minneapolis and the line’s southwestern terminus in Eden Prairie in 2022.

Met Council Member Gail Dorfman asked during the Sept. 13 meeting if it was possible to make up some of the lost time during construction. “Probably” not, responded project manager Mark Fuhrman

The Met Council must still apply to the FTA for a $929-million grant expected to cover half of all project costs. As recently as July, the agency expected to submit its application in September; that date has been pushed back to the second quarter of 2018.

Hennepin County is  contributing the majority of local funds to the project. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin predicted Met Council engineers would propose “fairly modest changes” to the scope of the SWLRT project.

“We’re still in good shape in terms of the ability to apply” for the FTA grant, McLaughlin said, noting that federal appropriations have been made for several major transit projects about as far along as SWLRT. Met Council insists the project remains “highly competitive” for federal funding.

“Nobody was more disappointed in a four-month delay in the state of Minnesota than I was,” McLaughlin said, adding: “That’s just the nature of the beast.”