Relationships between the Metropolitan Council and elected officials at the state, county and local levels are strained, with criticism of the agency coming from across the political spectrum. From doctoring their financials to their blatant mismanagement of the Southwest light-rail project (SWLRT), causes for distrust surrounding the Met Council are growing.
Distrust of the council arises from a governance structure that allows this unelected body to exercise power over 3.5 million metro residents with little to no accountability. The council, reporting only to the governor, now controls all federal and state resources for metro transportation, transit, subsidized housing, water treatment, parks and airports. More recently, the body has added fighting poverty and inequity to its role.
This is why legislators, as well as city and county elected officials, are calling for a sharp pullback.
Lack of transparency and accountability go a long way toward explaining the mismanagement we’ve witnessed recently. An audit completed last month by the nonpartisan legislative auditor found that the council used two different sets of financials, one provided to the Legislature showing a $68 million deficit and the other to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), showing a healthy surplus of $152 million. More disappointing is that Gov. Mark Dayton demanded that taxpayers fill that operating deficit while castigating the Legislature for so-called transit funding “cuts.”
In releasing its audit, the auditor’s office “questioned whether the council was fully disclosing to the federal government its true financial situation given the council’s projected deficit and decreased legislative support.” Fortunately, the auditor is not done with the council and will have further reports airing its findings.
Beyond misleading the federal government, Legislature and public on its financial situation, the council is responsible for a series of glaring mismanagement issues. For instance, the SWLRT bid-letting process has resulted in 36 local contractors being barred from submitting bids because of FTA rules meant to ensure fair competition. The public deserves to know the facts behind this fiasco, and why hundreds of local jobs promised to Minnesotans will be going to out-of-state contractors.
Next, the council announced a surprise construction add-on to SWLRT — a 1.4-mile-long and 10-foot-high concrete wall to address public safety concerns along the corridor. This concession was made to BNSF Railway in the final rush to meet federal requirements and apply for $929 million in federal funds. It substantiated bipartisan fears about rail safety over the co-location of passenger and freight rail along the narrow corridor.
A stern letter from DFL legislators and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges expressed dismay over this development. The FTA is requiring the council to take remedial steps, including an additional environmental study that could further add to delays.
Furthermore, while still lacking a funding commitment from the federal government for SWLRT, the council has already spent $221 million in taxpayer funds for planning and pre-build construction, including $118 million in rail vehicles purchased from Siemens. At the very least, this shows an extreme lack of accountability and respect for Minnesota taxpayers.
And it’s not just elected officials, but citizens who are showing their frustration with the council. A citizen lawsuit alleging that the council impermissibly biased the decision on the routing for SWLRT is still awaiting a judge’s decision. The Lakes and Parks Alliance lawsuit makes a meritorious claim that, if substantiated, proves the route was advanced without proper consideration of alternatives — a clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
What’s more, the city of Minneapolis will also be feeling the sting of council decisions. In a hurry to circumvent the Legislature on light-rail funding, Hennepin County approved a half-cent transit tax, and because of a statutory sales tax cap, forced Minneapolis to reduce its lodging tax. With thousands of tourists rolling into town for the Super Bowl in February, it seems the Met Council will win and Minneapolis will lose millions.
Projected costs stemming from the council’s plan for a fixed guideway transit system are so consequential that they risk other obligations of state and local government for everything from education to public safety, as well as the overall well-being of the seven-county metro area. Elected leaders and the public can no longer allow the Metropolitan Council to go on with business as usual. As legislators, we will continue to advance needed reforms to bring balance and accountability to this unaccountable, reckless government agency.
Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, and Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, are members of the Minnesota House. This article was also submitted on behalf of the following House members, all Republicans: Tony Albright, Prior Lake; Cal Bahr, East Bethel; Regina Barr, Inver Grove Heights; Drew Christensen, Savage; Matt Dean, Dellwood; Bob Dettmer, Forest Lake; Jerry Hertaus, Greenfield; Jon Koznick, Lakeville; Kathy Lohmer, Stillwater; Bob Loonan, Shakopee; Eric Lucero, Dayton; Jim Nash, Waconia; Roz Peterson, Lakeville; Cindy Pugh, Chanhassen; Peggy Scott, Andover; Dennis Smith, Maple Grove; Mark Uglem, Champlin; Nolan West, Blaine; Abigail Whelan, Ramsey; and Anna Wills, Rosemount.