For Metropolitan Council Chair Alene Tchourumoff and Hennepin County Board Member Peter McLaughlin, the occasion called for a celebratory selfie.
After two decades of planning, a decision issued Wednesday by the Federal Transit Administration allows for construction to begin on the $2 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit project, a 14.5-mile extension of the Metro Green Line that will add tracks between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie. The FTA issued a so-called letter of no prejudice, the official go-ahead for Met Council to commence construction activities on the state’s largest-ever public works project using local funds.
The FTA has not yet awarded Met Council the $929 million federal grant expected to make up nearly half the project’s budget. It hasn’t even invited the agency to apply for the grant, but that’s one of several next steps, and the letter of no prejudice all but assures the grant will be awarded next year.
The FTA’s letter arrived around 4 p.m. Wednesday, and 45 minutes later, in the wake of a hastily arranged press conference at Met Council headquarters in St. Paul, Tchourumoff and McLaughlin stood side-by-side grinning into the camera.
A 27-year member of the county board and chair of the county rail authority, McLaughlin was the project’s “biggest champion,” Commissioner Mike Opat said. McLaughlin recalled dashing off to an emergency Sunday evening meeting at the governor’s mansion on one of the project’s darker days.
Tchourumoff, who has led Met Council since last summer, shepherded SWLRT through two rounds of bidding on the civil construction contract as the project fought lawsuits in federal court and challenges at the Surface Transportation Board.
On Thursday, the Met Council voted to award that contract to a team comprised of Lunda Construction Co. and C.S. McCrossan. Lunda-McCrossan was the low bid this spring when it submitted a figure of $799.5 million to Met Council, and it stood by for three-and-a-half months as the agency — waiting on the FTA’s letter — twice delayed its decision. The other team competing for the contract pulled out of the running in October.
The Met Council vote took place just hours before the Lunda-McCrossan bid would have expired at 11:59 p.m. on the 15th. Three representatives of the team were present for the vote in the agency’s St. Paul boardroom, but they declined to comment until they’d put pen to paper on the contract.
Asked why the FTA waited until seemingly the last minute to issue the letter of no prejudice, Tchourumoff said the feds “were just working their process.”
“These things are complicated,” McLaughlin added. “This is $2 billion in construction, and they’re trying to make sure all the pieces are right.
“In the end, we’re hoping for $930 million from them … so they do their due diligence.”
Several hours before the Met Council’s Thursday meeting, the Hennepin County Board gathered to take several votes to advance the project. That included approving up to $435 million in county and railroad authority funds for early construction activities.
Some of those costs could be reimbursed by the federal government if the FTA awards the project full funding.
County ups commitment
After the federal government, Hennepin County is the project’s largest source of funding. Met Council turned to the county for an additional $204 million in May, and the county is now committed to more than $780 million for SWLRT.
The county’s share is largely paid for by a transit-dedicated 0.5 percent sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle excise.
On Thursday, the board agreed to put up an additional $200 million — 10 percent of the total SWLRT project budget — to cover cost overruns or funding shortfalls.
“This money wouldn’t actually be provided unless or until it is needed,” said Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Ben Schweigert, who explained that the FTA now requires the additional local commitment from all projects in the FTA’s New Starts program, the source of SWLRT’s anticipated federal grant. Schweigert said the additional funds wouldn’t be tapped until all project dollars, including the contingency fund, were spent, adding that “no New Starts project in Minnesota has ever exhausted the contingency funds that are in its base budget.”
The lone vote against advancing SWLRT was Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who this year ran for governor as a Republican, losing to Congressman Tim Walz, a DFLer. Johnson has called the project a “waste” of taxpayer dollars, arguing it will not reduce congestion on area highways.
But even Johnson joined his colleagues in congratulating McLaughlin and County Board Chair Jan Callison, who also played a critical role in ushering SWLRT to this point. In their comments, the board members mixed gratitude with relief.
“My gosh, are we really here? Pinch me,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene.
Met Council is planning a ceremonial groundbreaking for SWLRT before the end of the year, but heavy construction won’t begin until early 2019. The line is expected to begin passenger service in 2023.
The project is still the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, a citizens group that alleges Met Council broke the law when it secured local commitments to one of several possible routes even while other options were still under review. A Minnesota U.S. District Court judge sided with the Met Council, but Lakes and Parks Alliance has appealed the ruling.
Met Council settled a second federal lawsuit with Twin Cities & Western Railroad in July.
Central Corridor overcame several lawsuits to open in 2014. That existing segment of the Metro Green Line runs between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both the Metro Green and Metro Blue lines set ridership records in 2017 and have exceeded ridership projections since opening.
“I’ve got every reason to believe we’re going to do the same on Southwest,” McLaughlin said.
For both he and Tchourumoff, this SWLRT project milestone coincides with a career turning point. McLaughlin this month lost a re-election bid to fellow DFLer Angela Conley, and Tchourumoff starts a new job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in December.
Gov.-elect Walz, who endorsed McLaughlin’s re-election campaign, will appoint a new Met Council chair after taking office and could look closely at a former county commissioner with light rail expertise.
Asked about that possibility after he and Tchourumoff snapped their selfie in the Met Council boardroom, McLaughlin replied, “I have no idea.”
Tchourumoff gestured at the rows of plaques hanging at the back of the room, each honoring a Met Council chair.
“We’ve got a spot for you on the wall,” she said.