Costs rise as dispute stalls Southwest Corridor light-rail line

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2014 - 12:09 AM

If the dispute kills the project, $30 million in state and local funds already spent on it would be lost.

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9:13 a.m. The train paused at Cedar Lake Ave. awaiting permission to proceed into Minneapolis.

A bitter stalemate over how to build the Southwest Corridor light-rail line is adding nearly $1 million a week to its cost, perhaps as much as $21 million since project planners last fall postponed a decision on the final design.

Those costs reflect inflation estimates and come on top of the price of adding more costly features like tunnels in an effort to satisfy critics.

Moreover, if the dispute kills the project, $30 million in state and local funds already spent on it would be lost.

The continued haggling over the route and other aspects have raised concerns about the escalating cost of the Twin Cities’ largest transit project, and how much power Minneapolis has to shape the outcome.

“I’m concerned that we will study this project to death and it will never get built,” Metropolitan Council Member Jennifer Munt, whose agency is planning the project, said last week.

The statement stems from a disagreement between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park on whether to reroute freight trains to make room for the light-rail line in Minneapolis. They are among five cities along the proposed route from downtown to Eden Prairie whose consent must be sought by the Met Council before it can start building the line.

Signaling growing frustration, some metro officials on a panel that bankrolls Twin Cities transit projects and spent millions on Southwest are exploring whether the Met Council could override a city that refuses consent.

A bid for peace

Unsuccessful efforts to settle the freight train dispute helped drive up the cost of the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line last fall from $1.25 billion to $1.55 billion. Planners proposed spending more money to either reroute the freight from the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park or build light-rail tunnels next to the freight and recreational trails in the corridor. But Minneapolis didn’t want the tunnels and St. Louis Park didn’t want the freight.

Saying the project was in jeopardy, Gov. Mark Dayton in October supported a three-month moratorium to conduct more studies of tunnels and freight reroutes.

The results didn’t change the positions of Minneapolis or St. Louis Park. But the Met Council estimates that construction costs increase by $40 million to $50 million due to inflation over the course of a year, meaning a three-month delay for studies late last year would add $10 million to $12.5 million by the time construction begins.

Inflation would add another $6.6 million to $8.3 million for an additional two-month delay in the project to explain the results of the studies at public meetings early this year.

The agency’s estimates are based on the assumption that transportation construction costs will rise from 2.5 percent to 3.2 percent annually, faster than overall inflation. Construction costs rose 2.6 percent nationwide in the past 12 months, according to Engineering News-Record.

Aside from inflationary increases, the Met Council paid a consultant $22,000 to help calm critics at the meetings where the studies were released.

Falling behind

Southwest planners are counting on the federal government to pick up half of the cost of the project.

Southwest was among 10 transit projects in the nation that the federal government approved for preliminary engineering.

In the past year or so, eight of those have progressed to more advanced engineering or received final approval for federal funding.

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