The Minnesota Department of Transportation will assume a bigger role in the Blue Line light-rail extension, a move by state lawmakers to ensure the $3 billion project isn't fraught with the delays and cost overruns of the Southwest light-rail line.

The provision, included in the 1,400-page tax law signed by Gov. Tim Walz, calls for MnDOT's input on the design, planning, land acquisition, construction and scheduling of the Blue Line, which is slated to connect downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park via Robbinsdale and Crystal. Service is projected to begin in 2030.

What the language doesn't do: Replace the Metropolitan Council with MnDOT as the lead agency overseeing new transit projects costing more than $100 million — which was the authors' original intent.

At the time, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the measure was necessary because the Met Council is "incompetent and incapable," given Southwest's longstanding woes.

MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger told the Senate Transportation Committee last month that the agency wasn't prepared to handle an influx of transit work. Other legislators worried that the measure would detract from road and bridge projects in rural Minnesota.

As the session waned, a compromise was crafted: MnDOT's involvement would be limited to light-rail projects — meaning, in practical terms, the Blue Line extension.

"MnDOT won't take over the project, but will play a bigger role," Dibble said last week.

In a statement, Daubenberger said she was "supportive of the language in the final bill and very appreciative of Sen. Dibble's efforts to work with the department to leverage additional MnDOT expertise to meet his goals of providing more accountability and oversight on the Blue Line extension and potential, future light-rail transit projects."

MnDOT staffers will be involved in analyzing bid proposals before they're awarded and contract language. They will also review change orders of more than $500,000, and delays that linger for more than 30 days. If there's a dispute with a contractor, MnDOT will play a role in resolving it.

It took the Met Council two rounds of bidding before awarding Southwest's $800 million civil construction contract to Lunda/C.S. McCrossan Joint Venture in 2018, a move that added months to the project's timeline. In addition, a review by the state's Legislative Auditor found the Southwest project had logged more than 1,000 change orders as of last June.

Southwest is about 80% complete and projected to begin service in 2027.

The new law calls for at least one MnDOT staff member working on light-rail projects to be a licensed engineer. In addition, the light-rail project manager and lead engineer must each have at least 10 years of transportation experience. The Blue Line extension's lead engineer, Nick Landwer, and project manager Nick Thompson meet that criteria, according to project spokesperson Kyle Mianulli.

If Met Council staff members reject a MnDOT recommendation regarding a light-rail line, work cannot move forward on that part of the project until the dispute is resolved, the law states. The council must then explain to MnDOT's commissioner and transportation leaders at the Capitol why it spurned the agency's proposal.

MnDOT personnel will be funded out of the existing Blue Line extension budget, which is estimated to range between $2.9 billion and $3.2 billion. The project has been in the works for more than a decade, and its route has changed twice.

Mianulli noted MnDOT already has a "strong existing partnership" with the Blue Line extension project. Regarding the new law, he said the council and Hennepin County "welcome continued partnership with MnDOT on this project ... and look forward to building on this successful relationship moving forward."