The Potluck

Legislative audit finds Southwest Light Rail extension delayed and over budget due to planning issues

By: - September 2, 2022 1:22 pm

The Metropolitan Council is overseeing the design, engineering, construction and future operation of the light rail line, which is years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

A legislative audit of the Southwest Light Rail green line extension found that poor planning and decision-making are responsible for the delays and cost overruns that have plagued the project since it started in 2011. 

The Metropolitan Council is overseeing the design, engineering, construction and future operation of the light rail line, which is now nine years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget, with a massive funding hole to complete the project. 

The Legislature passed a law earlier this year mandating the project get audited by the Office of Legislative Auditor, which is the Legislature’s investigative arm. The new audit is already creating still more political pressure on the Met Council to clean up its mess. 

State Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis Democrats and leaders on transportation issues, requested the audit and released a statement expressing “deep concern over the management of this project by the Metropolitan Council.” 

“While today’s report is new, the truth is many of these issues are the long-term results of an agency that lacks transparency in decision-making or accountability,” they said.

The audit found three main factors driving the project’s engineering problems: Uncertainty about conflict with the freight rail along the route; the construction of a complex light rail tunnel in Minneapolis’s Kenilworth corridor; and the need for a concrete barrier wall between freight rail and light rail traffic.

As the report indicates, early plans for the light rail assumed the existing freight rail line would be moved to make way for the new line. The Met Council conceded in 2014 this wasn’t going to happen, and plans were updated to build the light rail line next to the existing freight rail line. This required construction of a tunnel within Minneapolis’ Kenilworth corridor. This is just one of the factors for the project’s delayed schedule and increased costs during the design and construction phase. 

The project — which will connect downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park — commenced in 2011 with a tentative completion date of 2018. The project, which includes the construction of 16 new transit stations, two light rail tunnels and a 14.5-mile track, has been severely delayed and is now projected to be done in 2027.

When it was initiated in 2011, the council estimated a cost of $1.25 billion. The budget as of this year has more than doubled, and a key part of the funding remains uncertain. The Met Council hasn’t identified a source for over $500 million — or nearly 20% — of the $2.74 billion budget. 

Charles Zelle, who was appointed chair of the Metropolitan Council by Gov. Tim Walz in late 2019, responded to the audit: “As no one report can provide the necessary detail of the nearly 40 years of …project history, thousands of public meetings, and multiple studies and reports, we appreciate the care and detailed work undertaken in the review of the project’s timeline and budget.” 

This is one in a series of reports that the OLA is conducting on the Southwest light rail project; another is expected to be released early next year. 

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. A Tennessee-native, she recently graduated from Northwestern University.