A major engineering firm lost tens of millions of dollars in potential contracts for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project after government officials determined it paid too little attention to community concerns in planning the proposed route.

Newly released evaluations of bids for the work show that URS of San Francisco "lacked focus on one of the primary goals of the project, which is to achieve municipal consent."

"The team did not discuss or mention the community as a stakeholder," read another evaluation.

The findings offer new justifications for the Metropolitan Council's award last month of $34 million in contracts to URS rivals Kimley-Horn of North Carolina and AECOM of Los Angeles.

The decision to reject URS for Southwest Corridor engineering contracts comes little more than a half year after the Met Council was poised to give the firm a $94 million contract for even more engineering work along the line -- rejecting a bid by AECOM.

The agency backed off that decision amid mounting criticism of URS for designing the Martin Olav Sabo bicycle-pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis, where cables snapped. It then carved up the engineering work into two smaller contracts and allowed URS to compete for both.

The evaluations steer clear of the bridge controversy. Instead, they give URS lower grades on meeting a government goal to maximize community benefits of the future 15-mile transit line from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs.

Memories of Central Corridor

The Met Council had been criticized for neglecting community concerns while developing the Central Corridor LRT between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Residents and businesses complained that too few stations were planned for the eastern end of University Avenue in St. Paul. The agency eventually relented and added stations.

"Certainly the experience with the Central Corridor is very clear in people's memory," said Carissa Schively Slotterback, an associate professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs specializing in transportation planning and land use policy. "If you engage people early on, probably you are going to have less opposition later."

AECOM provided engineering services for the Central Corridor line. Met Council transit projects planner Mark Fuhrmann said AECOM followed agency direction in designing fewer stations before fielding public concerns.

Evaluators for the Southwest contracts cited the firm's experience on Central as a strength and noted that one of its subcontractors has "extensive experience with the municipalities" along the Southwest Corridor. Municipal support is critical to advancing the project.

A transit advocate sees greater emphasis on community involvement in the earliest planning of lines.

"There's much more engagement and participation from ... the business communities to neighborhood associations to local municipalities," said Hilary Reeves, a spokeswoman for Transit for Livable Communities.

Freight train trouble

One major community issue facing engineers is whether to put the Southwest LRT adjacent to existing freight traffic or re-route freight to make way for LRT trains. Some St. Louis Park residents fear that the planned re-route would bring noise to their community. The Twin Cities and Western railroad recently reiterated its opposition to the re-route plan, although railroad president Mark Wegner has left open the possibility of supporting the re-route if safety and financial concerns are resolved.

The Federal Transit Administration said the dispute must be settled before final approval can be given to the project. The engineers will need to decide whether to re-route the freight, and if so, how to do it.

The other winning contractor, Kimley-Horn, "addressed the freight rail relocation and co-location issue," evaluators said. And one of the firm's subcontractors "has demonstrated working experience with the local railroads."

The evaluation panels were composed of Met Council, state, county and city officials. They said URS didn't pay enough attention to coordinating transit to meet community interests along the future LRT route, which would run through Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

The evaluations, released this week, were not public while the competing engineering proposals were under consideration by the Met Council.

At one point evaluators asked firms to advise the agency on linking the light rail with bus, bike and pedestrian traffic.

Describing the URS response, they wrote, "Overall, this presentation was weak." URS ideas "lacked focus" and its proposal to link a future West Lake LRT station with buses was dubbed "pedestrian unfriendly."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504