Frustration with the Southwest light-rail's construction delays and soaring costs boiled over last week when the Minneapolis Park Board denied the Metropolitan Council a permit to close the Cedar Lake Parkway until the end of the year.
The Metropolitan Council has a permit to close the parkway for 180 days, starting in February, as construction of a tunnel continues beneath the parkway near the Kenilworth Corridor. On Wednesday night, Southwest light-rail project director Jim Alexander asked the Park Board to extend that permit as work drags on.
Construction of the Southwest light-rail — the largest public works project in state history — launched in 2018, with work on the tunnel beginning a year later. Ultimately, the half-mile-long tunnel will accommodate light rail trains, with freight rail and a bike and pedestrian path on top of it.
The Met Council says the complexity of the tunnel project is one of two main reasons for the project's delays, along with a crash wall to separate freight and light-rail trains west of Target Field.
The council said in January of last year that because of the two issues, the project won't begin passenger service in 2023 as planned, and the budget will likely exceed the $2 billion mark. In the year since then, the council has not said how much the line will cost or when it will open.
The tunnel extends 20 feet below the water table. The cramped worksite is just 50 feet wide and constantly flooding.
At the same time, work continues on a special wall in the corridor to buffer the Calhoun Isles condominiums, parts of which lie within 6 inches of the tunnel. And Twin Cities & Western Railroad trains rumble through the corridor several times a week amid the construction morass.
Construction challenges aside, the project itself has long had a tortuous history with its Kenwood neighbors — prompting a lawsuit in 2014 that claimed Southwest's route violated federal environmental laws. The suit was ultimately thrown out, but bitter feelings toward the project and the council linger.
"It's particularly painful for my community to not have the Met Council step up ... and say, 'We understand what we've put you through, we understand we didn't listen as well as we could have,'" said Park Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer, whose district includes the tunnel.
Shaffer toured the construction site last week. She expressed frustration at Wednesday's Park Board meeting that the light rail is encountering the same setbacks that neighbors predicted before the route was chosen years ago. "Now not just Minneapolis but all of Hennepin County is going to be reaping some of the cost of not respecting our voices through this process."
Without proposing a specific dollar amount, Shaffer asked the Metropolitan Council to compensate the parks for closing the Cedar Lake Parkway longer than anticipated, including the beach season.
Alexander responded that the Met Council does not have any money set aside to pay the Park Board. Southwest could exceed its $2.2 billion budget by an as-yet undetermined amount, with its $929 million of federal funds already spoken for. Hennepin County taxpayers will likely be saddled with future cost overruns, as well as any fees demanded by the Park Board.
"When you talk about Hennepin County, Minneapolis parks are like the little kid looking for scraps in the county," said Park Board Commissioner Becka Thompson. "I don't feel bad if people far out in the suburbs give a little back to our city parks. … I don't want to rubber-stamp something just because we're little kids."
Other commissioners balked at the possibility of raising taxes and delaying the Southwest light rail any longer. Commissioner Tom Olsen urged the board to be good partners with the Met Council and help move the project along.
"No matter how we look at it, the Southwest LRT ship has sailed," said Commissioner Becky Alper. "We deserve that idea of mutual respect, but it's ultimately going to be an additional cost that Hennepin County residents are going to pay, to just tack it on to the ... not even the bucket — but the tube — that is Southwest LRT, where you put the money in and it just goes right out, it never fills up. I can't support that."
Ultimately the Park Board voted 5-3 against extending the Metropolitan Council's permit to close Cedar Lake Parkway past July 10. Commissioners Shaffer, Thompson, Cathy Abene, Alicia D. Smith and Meg Forney voted to deny. Commissioners Alper, Olsen and Billy Menz voted to approve. Steffanie Musich was absent.
It's unclear what will happen when the initial 180-day permit lapses.
"The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board remains supportive of the Metropolitan Council's Green Line Extension Project," parks spokeswoman Robin Smothers said in a statement. "The Met Council has a permit to continue to work on the project for several months. MPRB staff will be working with Metropolitan Council staff to define appropriate mitigation related to the pending request by the Met Council to extend the permit until the end of 2022. The MPRB staff will be preparing recommendations it believes are aligned with the interests of the Board of Commissioners and the capacity for implementation by the Metropolitan Council."
Cars will be detoured when Cedar Lake Parkway closes in February through July 10. Pedestrians and bicyclists will also have alternate routes that will change through various stages of construction.
The 14.5-mile Southwest light-rail line, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, is more than 60% complete. About $1.38 billion has been spent so far, according to project spokesman Trevor Roy.
A recent memo issued by the state's Legislative Auditor's Office found that "prolonged and significant" differences of opinion on construction issues between the council and a major contractor has contributed to the project's rising costs.
"We are getting clarification on the outcome of the Minneapolis Park Board meeting and are currently exploring options to ensure the [Southwest LRT] is completed in a safe and timely manner," said Met Council communications director Terri Dresen in a statement. "The situation is evolving, and we remain confident a resolution will be reached. Work will continue on this vital community investment that connects people to jobs, health care, education and opportunity."