County approves more funds for Southwest light rail

But board members warn that the $2 billion project may be nearing a tipping point

Image courtesy Metropolitan Council

Members of the Hennepin County Board voted Thursday to increase the county’s funding commitment to the Southwest Light Rail Transit project by $204 million — and debated among themselves what might happen if they’re asked to up their contribution once again.

“The lift has gotten heavier, there’s no denying that,” said Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison, who voted with the 5-2 majority. Callison described the project, with all its potential benefits and looming risks, as “the most vexing problem” she has faced as a board member.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a staunch opponent of the project, voted against, and was joined by Commissioner Mike Opat, who said the growing price tag was evidence the state’s largest ever transportation project was “just plain poorly managed” by Met Council. Johnson also voted against a second measure to fund the project office through the end of August, a critical period for winning federal approvals.

The board’s action followed by one day the Metropolitan Council’s vote to increase the budget for the project, a 14.5-mile extension of the Metro Green Line, 7.8 percent to just over $2 billion. While the project is fully designed, there remain a number of risk factors that could drive the cost even higher, from delays caused by either of the two lawsuits against the project to the fluctuating price of copper, a major factor in the cost of a light-rail systems contract Met Council plans to award later this year.

As the project’s main local source of funding, Hennepin County is now committed to at least $780.5 million for SWLRT. And it is the only obvious place Met Council can turn for additional contributions.

Project leaders say they are on track to apply for a $928.8 million full-funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration this summer. That figure was locked-in when the project applied with FTA to enter the engineering phase in 2016. While the project leaders once counted on federal funds to cover 50 percent of project costs, the federal share is shrinking and will continue to diminish if costs continue to rise.

Callison said the county is “clearly building toward a decision point on this project,” possibly later this summer, when the cost outweighs the project’s potential rewards.

Noting the tight timeline for the project to complete federal risk and financial capacity assessments while also submitting its grant application — and, on the side, fighting for control of a key portion of the future light-rail corridor in a flurry of filings with the Surface Transportation Board — Commissioner Marion Greene said the Met Council was “playing a game of chicken” with the federal government that had backed Hennepin County into a corner.

“I feel that we are on thin ice,” Greene said, adding that she expected a briefing from project officials on the remaining risks by the end of August.

Greene also requested an update from the project on plans for a tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor. Residents of the Calhoun-Isles Condos recently presented findings from an engineering consultant that raise questions about how nearby light rail construction and operations might damage their building.

In exchange for its increased contribution — which is coming both form Hennepin County and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority — the county will exercise greater control over the project’s contingency funds.

Between the two of them, the county and railroad authority will control three of five votes on an executive control board that must approve all change orders exceeding $350,000. Half of the contingency funds will be held back, and any Met Council request to tap those funds will require a yes vote from a simple majority of the county board.


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  • Nathan Bakken

    The cost of this project is less than a gallon of gas every 8 years for each Hennepin County resident. That is pocket change, also if we would have built it years ago, we wouldn’t be in this situation.

  • Blue Lilac

    TWO BILLION DOLLARS??? Given the enormous expense, permanent property alteration, and neighborhood decline of installing Light Rail lines, wouldn’t it be better, and much cheaper, to just build dedicated roads and have express buses run the routes? Like the road from the U of M to the state fairgrounds. This approach would not cost anywhere near what Light Rail does, and would not permanently alter the neighborhoods like the train does. I can understand the need for trains in a metro area and population the size of Chicago or New York, but it really seems overkill and a huge waste of funds for the population of the Twin Cities. What am I missing in why this is not being done?

  • Nathan Bakken

    We are the 16th largest metro in the United States out of 382 defined statistical metro areas. We are not a small flyover city anymore, we need necessary investment in rail transportation to effectively move our population. Many people don’t want to ride buses, and our more willing to ride a train. Also trains are much easier to board for those with disabilities and the elderly due to level boarding. And that is just a few reasons to support LRT over building a road for this project and running buses.

  • Blue Lilac

    Two Billion dollars is a lot to spend so people with challenged mobility can board easier. I took the light rail twice, so far. Once I took a boring ‘tourist’ ride from MOA to downtown and back with an out-of-town guest. There was hardly anyone on the train. The other time was to ride to a Vikings game where each car was packed full like sardines, and more riders had to stand than were seated. The train drove right through the stops it was supposed to stop at along the way, with lots of people waiting at each, because there was no room in the cars. How sad that they all wanted to take the train and it just whizzed by their stop with totally full cars. So who knows how or when all those people got to the game. I thought the idea of a train was to scale up for heavy traffic events and scale down for light traffic times. That clearly did not happen that day.

    Other than that, I have not had occasion to ride a train because no train is close to where I live (Kenny-Armatage), nor do the trains go where I would need to go (primarily work and shopping). The only public transport that has worked for me was an express bus to downtown when I worked there, and the express schedule didn’t work when I had a non-downtown appointment during the day or had to get to work after 9am or leave before 3pm.

  • Nathan Bakken

    Your neighborhood is served by the the local 4 route and the express 156 route, trains can’t go everywhere, they are built for dense areas, and unfortunately your neighborhood is primarily single family houses. It doesn’t hurt to jump on a bus either.

  • Blue Lilac

    As I said, I used the #156 express bus to downtown when I worked there. The local #4 route does not serve me well, as it takes MUCH longer to get me anywhere than driving does and entails a 4-block walk to get to the bus stop and unknown walk to destination on the other end. Nothing wrong with walking except it adds time to the transport and difficulty when carrying items like groceries.

  • Nathan Bakken

    Advocacy for more trains in the city needs to be a thing too, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build one to connect our inner suburbs too.

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