It's been 17 years since the Blue Line began service in the Twin Cities, and the system's aging light-rail trains are in need of an overhaul.

But a disagreement has surfaced between Metro Transit, which operates the Green and Blue lines, and unionized workers who say they're being denied the chance to work on the rust-plagued vehicles. The work, they contend, should stay in Minnesota.

Instead, transit officials appear poised to award a $7.7 million contract to a Florida company that will ship the cars by rail from the Twin Cities to Louisiana, where rust mitigation and other improvements will take place. The contract could total $12 million, to be funded by federal and local sources.

Metro Transit's action "has the net effect of shipping union jobs and huge sums of taxpayer monies out of state because of [management's] failures," said Ron Kammueller, who represents light-rail maintenance workers with Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), during a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Council's Transportation Committee.

The committee was considering a contract calling for RailCar Co., of Sarasota, Fla., to work on 16 Bombardier light-rail vehicles, used primarily on the Blue Line linking downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America. The contract was advertised a year ago, and RailCar Co. was the lone bidder.

The Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, is expected to consider the contract at its Dec. 8 meeting.

Metro Transit officials maintain that if the contract isn't awarded soon, the cost to get the work done may increase. Asked why the contract hadn't gone before the council sooner — Metro Transit received the RailCar Co. bid in January — spokesman Howie Padilla said extra time was needed for "due diligence."

"Under ideal circumstances, we would love to do this work in-house," he said.

Rust mitigation on the cars began in 2017, with ATU workers completing the work on 11 aging vehicles. But the rust-busting program was slowed because of construction at Metro Transit's Hiawatha Maintenance Facility, which was expanded to make room for future Southwest light-rail trains. The Southwest line is about 60% complete. though it's still unclear when that service between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie will begin.

Shipping the older light-rail vehicles to Louisiana will give Metro Transit maintenance staffers a head start on rust mitigation for an additional 64 light-rail cars made by Siemens that have "far less severe" corrosion, according to the agency's proposal.

"If we don't do this to catch up, then the cars won't last 30 years or so," Padilla said. Metro Transit officials said last week they hope each vehicle will last up to 40 years with proper maintenance.

Minnesota's harsh weather and the prolific use of road salt to combat ice and snow has led to rust on some light-rail vehicles — degradation that can be hard to spot unless the car is dismantled.

"The issue that we are facing is to get to that rust before it progresses to an advanced stage," said Jay Wesley, project manager for Metro Transit, at the Transportation Committee meeting.

Kammueller said it's doubtful RailCar Co. will employ union labor in Louisiana, a right-to-work state. It's also unclear whether some of the work will be done by subcontractors.

A man answering the phone at RailCar Co. last week declined to comment on the contract or identify himself. Metro Transit contends the firm has done similar work for TriMet, the transit provider in Portland, Ore.; officials with TriMet were not available for comment.

Metro Transit claims that a dearth of maintenance workers in Minnesota also is contributing to the decision to outsource jobs. Though there were 41 openings for maintenance workers through August, Metro Transit was only able to hire two people.

Kammueller contended that Metro Transit has bungled an in-house apprentice program designed to attract workers.