Metro Transit is struggling to find ways to maintain its aging fleet of light-rail vehicles, but a plan to ship trains from the Twin Cities to Louisiana for service has sparked some tense debate.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Council awarded a $7.7 million contract to Florida-based RailcarCo., which will oversee rust mitigation and other improvements for 16 Bombardier light-rail vehicles. The company, which submitted its proposal almost a year ago, was the lone bidder.

The 8-5 vote and related discussion was unusually tense for the council, which oversees Metro Transit. The decision came after the union representing light-rail mechanics insisted that its members could do the work in Minnesota.

"The work and taxpayers' money are being shipped out of state when we could have done it here," said Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents mechanics and others at Metro Transit.

But Brian Funk, Metro Transit's interim COO, said delaying the decision could "equal more damage, more cost and [a] compromised life span" for the light-rail vehicles.

The transit agency hopes that each vehicle will stay in service for up to 40 years, but Minnesota's harsh climate and frequent use of road salt means maintenance is critically important because the trains' underbellies rust. The Blue Line linking Minneapolis to the Mall of America began service in 2004, so some of Metro Transit's trains are at least 17 years old.

Shipping older light-rail vehicles to Louisiana by rail will give Metro Transit's unionized maintenance staff a head start on rust mitigation for an additional 64 light-rail cars made by Siemens that have less corrosion, Funk said.

Metro Transit has been aware of the rust corrosion problem for at least four years. ATU workers have already completed rust mitigation work on 11 vehicles, but work was slowed while Metro Transit's maintenance facility in Minneapolis was expanded to make room for vehicles for the new Southwest light-rail line. That work is substantially completed.

It remains unclear when Southwest, a $2.2 billion extension of the Green Line linking Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, will begin service, but it will be after 2023.

Funk acknowledged that Metro Transit hadn't fully appreciated the extent of the rust corrosion problem. "We got a late start on this," he said.

He also maintained that it has been difficult to hire employees to do the work, given the statewide worker shortage. Though there were 41 openings for maintenance workers through August, Metro Transit was only able to hire two people.

The union claims that the hiring process has been slowed because a qualifications test given to potential light-rail mechanics has been halted while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates the test for racial bias. However, both the union and the transit agency vowed to find another way to make sure new hires are qualified.

It will cost Metro Transit $40,000 to ship each vehicle by rail to Louisiana. The contract with RailcarCo. could ultimately total $12 million, to be funded by federal and local sources.

"This is outsourcing, I don't think there's any question about that," said Council Member Kris Fredson. "We're hearing our employees tell us they believe they can do the work and they want to do the work."

Fredson said the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the St. Paul and Minneapolis regional labor federations have raised concerns about the contract. "If we were elected this would be [dead on arrival]," he said. Met Council members are appointed by the governor.

Council Chair Charlie Zelle said, however, that "sometimes you have to do the hard thing ... To ignore this would be irresponsible and a delay wouldn't be productive."