The Metropolitan Council adopted a policy Wednesday intended to avoid costly mishaps when planning big public transportation projects, such as the $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail line.
Council members said the new framework will help identify risks — including financial, legal and contractual — related to planning, building and maintaining multimillion-dollar bus and rail lines. If vetted in a timely manner, such risks can be minimized or resolved altogether, council staff said.
The policy was approved unanimously last month by the council's Transportation Committee. Several council members said it could help better assess Metro Transit projects as new risks emerge, such as the COVID-19 pandemic's deleterious effects on transit ridership, the bus driver shortage and community opposition.
The policy states that as transit projects advance, Metro Transit will "lead risk management activities in coordination with local governments and project partners, including assignment of roles and responsibilities for the project."
"It feels like a good government practice that should have been put in practice a long time ago," said Charles Carlson, executive director of the council's Metropolitan Transportation Services division. "Now is the perfect time to put it in place."
"Anytime the Met Council develops these transitway projects, the region is committing to a significant capital investment," said Deb Barber, chair of the council's Transportation Committee, in a recent interview. "But there are associated risks, and we really need to consider these risks before we advance these projects."
The new policy comes at a critical time for the Met Council, which plans and builds transit projects in the region.
The Southwest line's cost overruns and construction delays have given new urgency to talk at the State Capitol of the need for an elected council, and a key lawmaker said he intends to introduce a bill next year calling for Met Council members to be elected rather than appointed by the governor.
Moreover, the Southwest line is being probed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. The first report by the state's watchdog is expected in early February, with a second likely following in April.
In the meantime, the Met Council continues to search for more than $500 million to finish the 14.5-mile line, now slated to begin service between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie in 2027. It remains unclear where the additional money will come from; when asked about it Wednesday, council spokeswoman Terri Dresen said: "We're working on it."
Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis DFLer and incoming chair of the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said he plans to sponsor legislation to elect Met Council members rather than appoint them and said such a measure would enhance the council's accountability and transparency.
When asked about the policy adopted Wednesday — which has similar goals — Dibble said that "it makes a ton of sense, but why wasn't it formalized already? The council should be elected instead of being run by a bunch of bureaucrats."
The Met Council is planning and building a number of major public transit projects, including the Blue Line light-rail extension to Brooklyn Park; the Gold Line bus-rapid transit line (BRT) between St. Paul and Woodbury; and the Purple Line, a BRT project in the north metro that has encountered stiff community opposition.
Barber said she's mindful of the impending legislative auditor's report. "What we're really trying to do is demonstrate [that] we're listening and being a good partner, but also we're looking at our own processes and making improvements where needed," she said.
The reach of the new policy probably won't affect the Southwest project, which is more than 60% complete. As of mid-September, the project had spent $1.7 billion and had $546 million remaining in its budget, according to project spokesman Trevor Roy.
Had the policy already been in place, Barber said, it may have mitigated some of the expense involving a mile-long crash wall separating light rail and freight trains west of Target Field. That late addition to Southwest's budget, required by BNSF Railway, ended up costing $93 million — an amount that was carved out of the project's contingency fund.