State lawmakers frustrated with the multitude of issues dogging the $2.9 billion Southwest light-rail project have introduced legislation that would give the Minnesota Department of Transportation the responsibility for building big public transit projects in the state — and not the Metropolitan Council.

But at a hearing on the matter Wednesday, MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said thanks for the vote of confidence — but no thanks. The agency, she said, isn't equipped to take on more work.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is leading the charge with a bipartisan bill that calls for MnDOT to serve as the "responsible authority" for light rail and bus rapid transit projects with budgets exceeding $100 million, or if the lines operate substantially within a dedicated right of way.

The bill could affect the planned Blue Line light rail extension between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, a project with a price tag of $2.9 to $3.2 billion. The proposed Purple Line bus-rapid transit project on the east side of the metro could be included, as well as the $2 billion Riverview Corridor streetcar line between downtown St. Paul and the Mall of America. Some arterial bus-rapid transit lines, an expanding and popular mode of transit that operates in traffic, could also be in the mix, depending on their budgets.

Dibble, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said he was spurred to action because the Southwest project has been mismanaged and is now more than $1 billion over budget and nearly a decade behind schedule. The 14.5-mile line, now about 80% complete, will link downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie beginning in 2027.

"Time and time again we have seen missed deadlines, cost overruns, and other issues that arise from one key issue — the inability of the Metropolitan Council to effectively oversee the large-scale transit projects that are vital to the success of the metro area's multi-modal transportation system," he said.

"MnDOT is the better agency to carry out these kinds of construction projects," Dibble said. "It's the one with the culture, the knowledge, the deep experience, and the one with a history of delivering large construction projects on time and on budget." He noted that MnDOT worked on the Blue Line light rail project, which began service between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America in 2004 with no substantial delays or budget issues.

But Daubenberger said staffing a big transit project like the Blue Line extension or the Riverview Corridor streetcar line would require adding at least 100 people to its metro staff, perhaps more if projects overlapped. Like many employers, MnDOT's staffing levels are down 20% in the agency's metro district, she said.

"As a result, MnDOT would have difficulty delivering other projects in our program," such as replacing the $1.8 billion Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior, Wis., she said.

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said he was worried that adding transit projects to MnDOT's responsibilities would affect rural Minnesota. "This would put MnDOT in a tougher position to deliver what they do already," he said Wednesday.

Daubenberger said MnDOT could provide peer reviews of transit projects led by the Met Council. This was done for Southwest in 2022, when MnDOT staff concluded the delays and substantial cost increases do "not appear to be the result of a single event or point of culpability."

The Met Council declined comment on the bill, saying that Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee hearing "captures the discussion."

The bill specifies that once MnDOT completes a big transit project, the Met Council would then own and operate it. A companion bill was also introduced in the House, sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

Dibble appeared undeterred Wednesday: "There's a way to do this, we're all really smart and really creative. We can figure this out so that we can have [MnDOT] build these massive construction projects the Met Council cannot do because they're incompetent and incapable."