The Metropolitan Council will likely solicit another round of bids to build the $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail line, adding delay and cost to a complicated project already fraught with controversy.
On Monday, Met Council Chairwoman Alene Tchourumoff said she is recommending the council reject all four bids for construction of the 14.5-mile line that would link downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie. Her charge comes after the regional planning body received bids ranging from $797 million to $1.08 billion from four construction partnerships in August.
The council won’t say how much it has budgeted to build the line. The largest public works project in state history involves constructing 15 passenger stations and 29 bridges, modifications to seven existing bridges, and construction of two train tunnels, 117 retaining walls and miles of track.
Tchourumoff said the bids submitted were not only over budget, but were “nonresponsive,” meaning they “haven’t met the requirements.” She declined to elaborate on how they were lacking but said restructuring the bid package won’t eliminate stations or involve rerouting the project.
Still, Tchourumoff expressed continued confidence in the embattled plan. “We think we still have a great project,” she said. “We’re working with our partners to get [the bid package] back out on the street so we can keep the project moving.”
Tchourumoff’s request to rebid the project’s construction work, made after just six weeks on the job, must first be approved by the council at its Sept. 20 meeting. Should that occur, Met Council staff will use “innovative cost reduction strategies” to tamp down expenses.
“We’re going to be sharpening our pencils, and we encourage the contractors to do the same,” she said.
The news means the project will be delayed four months, with new bids being awarded in March. The delay will add an additional $12 million to $16 million to the project’s overall cost.
The application for $929 million in federal matching funds, which was expected to be made this month, will also be pushed back.
President Donald Trump has not supported the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) program that funds transit project like Southwest, adding another layer of uncertainty to the project.
However, Southwest supporters note that the Caltrain high-speed rail project in California and the Purple Line light-rail line in suburban Maryland each received FTA grants in recent months despite Trump’s lack of support.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a longtime foe of the Southwest project, said the delay “may be a good thing” given the uncertainty in Washington.
“We’ve been moving full speed ahead as though everything is in the bag,” Johnson said.
About $187 million from local coffers had been spent on the project as of July 30.
Another unknown: an impending ruling by U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in a lawsuit filed by neighbors along the route who claim the project violates federal environmental laws.
Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance, which filed the federal suit, said Southwest’s budget woes come as “no surprise — we’ve said for months that costs would exceed budget. Southwest has been bait-and-switch from the beginning with both the cost and nature of the project repeatedly turning out to be different from what was promised.”
Paring the project’s budget may seem like a case of déjà vu for those following Southwest. A similar crisis surfaced in 2015, when project delays and environmental and engineering challenges caused the project’s price tag to balloon by $341 million to close to $2 billion.
At the time, Gov. Mark Dayton, a supporter of the project, said he was “shocked and appalled” with Southwest’s burgeoning costs, which raised “serious questions about its viability and affordability.”
Former Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck did not rule out the possibility that the project could be shelved.