Two DFL lawmakers have requested an independent review of cost overruns, delays and overall management of the beleaguered $2 billion Southwest light-rail project.
Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, both staunch supporters of public transportation, have asked Legislative Auditor James Nobles to conduct an expedited review of the line, already the most expensive public works project in Minnesota history.
The request comes as a contingency fund to cover unexpected costs for construction of the line has dwindled so much that the project will likely tap an additional $200 million from Hennepin County to finish the job.
The cash infusion to Southwest's waning contingency is expected to be approved Tuesday by the County Board and Aug. 11 by the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing construction of the 14.5-mile line linking downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
"Cost overruns are always undesirable, but we appreciate the magnitude and complexity of this project and recognize unforeseen challenges are bound to arise when constructing a public works infrastructure project of this scale," County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said in an e-mail.
Hennepin County actually committed the extra money three years ago as a financial cushion required before the federal government would commit $929 million to the project.
At the time, county and Met Council officials said they didn't expect to use the contingency funds, culled from a local transportation sales tax. And they said the full amount, if approved, might not be entirely exhausted.
But the Met Council acknowledged in January that there were issues with Southwest's construction and that passenger service wouldn't begin in 2023 as planned because of "unforeseen conditions."
Hornstein and Dibble pointedly asked Nobles to pin down the project's cost and timeline, which are still unknown.
Mary Pattock, a board member of the nonprofit group Lakes and Parks Alliance, said county taxpayers "are entitled to accountability."
In a statement regarding the possible review, Met Council spokeswoman Terri Dresen said the council and Hennepin County "are committed to transparency in the benefits and challenge of constructing the largest transportation project in the state."
The project's original contingency fund was $204 million, of which only $51.4 million remains, said project spokesman Trevor Roy.
Construction of a tunnel in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis and a milelong crash protection wall separating light-rail and freight trains near the planned Bryn Mawr Station have added to the project's cost.
In the past year, change orders have altered Southwest's bottom line, including $21 million to remove contaminated soil along the route, which travels through St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka.
Since 2018, the Met Council has approved some 401 change orders totaling $141 million, Roy said. Not all the change orders were funded with contingency money.
The contaminated soil, the addition of the Eden Prairie Town Center Station after it had been slashed in early budget cutting, and an upgraded maintenance facility for trains should have been anticipated by transit planners, said project critic Jeanette Colby of Minneapolis.
"If decisionmakers had understood the true costs before the bulldozers started rolling, they might have chosen a better route, one that more Minneapolis residents, and a more diverse population, could have conveniently used," Colby wrote in an e-mail.
Hennepin County Board members whose districts will be served by the Southwest line said they still support the project.
Southwest "will connect residents across our region to some of the largest employers in Minnesota, and it's already resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in new developments along the line," said Commissioner Chris LaTondresse, whose district includes Hopkins, Minnetonka and parts of Eden Prairie.
Commissioner Debbie Goettel said the county may explore ways to draw additional federal funding, whether from President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure package or another source.
"There's a different tenor in Washington about these projects," she said.
Still, Hornstein and Dibble said they were dissatisfied with the way the Met Council has handled their longstanding concerns about the Southwest project.
"None of our advice, not one suggestion of ours, has ever been accommodated or taken seriously or implemented," said Dibble. "Had the Met Council been responsive to a number of critiques from myself, or Rep. Hornstein, this line would be up and running and for a lot less."
He added: "Now we're at the point where we can say, 'We told you so.' "
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752