County Board may have to make up the difference to avoid costly delay in construction.
Three weeks before the Hennepin County Board may decide the fate of a proposed transit hub near Target Field, the Interchange project has everything going for it but money.
The $67.7 million plaza and train platform, which would facilitate transit connections for passengers and pedestrians in downtown Minneapolis' North Loop, has federal and state backing and is an integral part of the metro area's long-range transportation strategy.
County officials want it done by 2014 when Central Corridor light-rail trains are scheduled to glide into Target Field, doubling current Hiawatha line arrivals and departures to 500 per day. Any delays, they say, will mean a huge inconvenience to passengers and a higher price tag to complete it.
But funding for the hub is $30 million short, and prospects are growing that the gap won't be closed by the time the County Board is scheduled to select a design and builder on April 10.
The board's decision could be postponed, but not by much. Construction must begin this year to beat Central Corridor.
"We don't have a lot of wiggle room here, maybe about a month and then it's maybe fish or cut bait. ... We can absorb a little [delay], but not a lot," Interchange manager Ed Hunter said.
Bids: One low, three high
On Tuesday, county officials opened bids from four potential design-builders. Graham Construction of Eagan submitted the low bid of $59.7 million, but the three other bids were higher than the project's estimated cost: M.A. Mortenson Construction, Golden Valley, $86.7 million; Knutson Construction, St. Louis Park, $87.8 million; and Adolfson & Peterson Construction, St. Louis Park, $106 million.
That doesn't mean that Graham has won the project. The county is using a best-value procurement process, meaning that the lowest cost is one of several factors to be considered before a builder is selected.
If the County Board decides to proceed with the project without all the money in place, it will be up to the county to backstop expenditures. Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the county probably will have to supply funding as needed to keep the project going.
"We're a large unit of government with significant capacity. I don't think it will be much of an issue," said McLaughlin, chair of the county's Regional Railroad Authority and the Interchange's chief advocate on the board.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson disagreed.
"If we don't have the money to do it, then let's figure out a way to do it with the money we already have," said Johnson, adding that he doesn't think they need to spend $70 million on a "beautiful new plaza and station" when one that is safe and functional will do.
'The busiest hub'
The concept for the Interchange includes a large plaza and train platform to accommodate more train riders and make for speedier boarding, storage tracks for light-rail cars and "a vertical circulator" to enable passengers to move easily between local trains above and Northstar commuter trains on tracks below.
Connections will be made to more than 1,900 daily buses coming and going at nearby stops, and the plaza area will be built over a new 400-space parking ramp. The Cedar Lake Bike Trail also runs nearby.
"It will be the busiest hub in the entire state of Minnesota," McLaughlin said.
The project recently passed one of its biggest tests when federal officials determined it wouldn't cause significant environmental damage in the area.
It has received funding pledges totaling $37.7 million from the state, Hennepin County, the federal government and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority. But funding wishes often have been disappointed.
Coming up about $30M short
Hennepin County had hoped for as much as $25 million last year from the U.S. Department of Transportation but got $10 million instead.
The county is seeking $19 million in bonding from the Legislature this session, but the request is on neither the governor's list of recommendations nor the House majority's. The bonding request got a hearing last week in a House committee, but no action was taken.
Additional funding could come through partnerships the county is hoping to strike with private firms to develop commercial potential at the corner of 5th Street and 6th Avenue N. near the Interchange, to run the new parking ramp and to buy naming rights for the large upper plaza. The county also is hoping for a $500,000 grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.
Once commissioners decide on a builder, they will have 90 days to either settle on the scope and design of the project or to pull the plug. That three-month period will give officials time to pare costs if necessary.
The board will award consultant, testing and inspection contracts next week that will be contingent on final approval, Hunter said.
"We've got good design, a good concept and four really cool proposals," he said. "We're exactly where we said we'd be and where we wanted to be. The only nice thing would be if someone won the lottery and turned it over to us."
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455