The Metropolitan Council on Wednesday awarded crucial contracts for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project to competitors of giant engineering firm URS, which came under fire for its role in designing the flawed Martin Olav Sabo Bridge.

The council Wednesday voted unanimously to give a maximum of $33.6 million in preliminary engineering contracts to AECOM of Los Angeles and Kimley-Horn of North Carolina. Agency staffers must now negotiate a precise price.

As recently as June the staff was leaning toward giving URS of San Francisco a $94 million contract for more elaborate engineering work on the Southwest project. Then questions intensified about its performance on the bridge, where cables broke last winter.

The Southwest Corridor line is scheduled to open in 2018 between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, at a cost of $1.25 billion.

The job will include planning locations of light-rail transit stations and park and rides, as well as deciding whether to reroute or build alongside existing freight rail lines.

Met Council chairwoman Susan Haigh said the selection of two URS rivals was based on evaluations by area cities and the agency's staff members, which "picked the teams they thought were best qualified to do the work."

AECOM put together a more appealing engineering team than it did when it was competing for the larger contract earlier this year, said Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees transit projects for the Met Council. He said AECOM's new team includes subcontractors who grasp the agency's desire to encourage housing and other development along the LRT.

One subcontractor became a minor issue in the selection. SRF, which is part of an engineering team led by AECOM, employed Met Council Member John Ðoàn from 1997 to 2011. Ðoàn abstained from voting this summer on the earlier contract when SRF was a potential subcontractor because he still had money invested in the company's 401(k). He voted Wednesday, explaining afterward that he had transferred his 401(k) to his new employer.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504