Why local officials aren’t freaking out about the $1.48 billion price tag for Bottineau LRT

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
How the Bottineau line will link up with the existing Blue Line at Target Center Station.

The people putting together the Twin Cities’ fourth light rail project, the one currently known as the Bottineau LRT, knew the cost was going to go up — and they’ve known it for months.

One reason is that the previous estimate of $1 billion was always something of a place saver, put there only after preliminary calculations were done early in the planning process. As almost everyone involved knew, subsequent scoping and engineering would produce a more accurate, and higher, price tag. 

And from there, political decisions added both benefits and costs. Towns want more stations and more park-and-ride facilities and overpasses rather than surface crossings. That $1 billion was never going to be enough to build the line.

During a July bus tour of the route for members of a Metropolitan Council committee, Dan Soler, project director for the extension, said: “The main message that we’d like to get across … is that we are at a very early stage, that the dollar amount that’s been set for the estimated cost of the project is based on a very preliminary identification of risks and scope items, and as we continue to develop this we’ll continue to update those.”

Midsummer prediction: closer to $1.5 billion

In fact, the political backers of Bottineau — an extension of the Blue Line that will run between Target Field Station and Oak Grove Parkway in Brooklyn Park — said in midsummer that the number for the 13.5-mile, 11-station line would probably be closer to $1.5 billion when the project was updated.

But those disclaimers didn’t really take. And attempts to inoculate the project against criticism that, like Southwest LRT, it was facing cost overruns and budget bloat, didn’t make much difference. “Blue Line estimate jumps by $500M,” read the headline in the Star Tribune. “New price tag for Bottineau extension stands at $1.48 billion.”

All true. And the article included quotes from Met Council officials saying how this was predicted and just part of the process. But members of the committee of council and local officials charged with overseeing the line reacted as much to the news coverage — and the public reaction they feared it might spur — as the budget number itself.

“I have absolutely no problem with these new estimates at all,” said Met Council member Lona Schreiber, who also serves on the corridor management committee for Bottineau. “But it always opens us up to criticism that there is some cost creep that’s going on and that’s not at all what happens.”

Dan Soler, project director for the extension
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Dan Soler, project director for the extension: “The main message that we’d like to get across … is that we are at a very early stage, that the dollar amount that’s been set for the estimated cost of the project is based on a very preliminary identification of risks and scope items, and as we continue to develop this we’ll continue to update those.”

“It’s unfortunate that the media wants to pick up that there’s some spending going on that we weren’t aware of, and that’s not true,” Schreiber said.

And Peter Wagenius, who represents Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges on the corridor management committee, said the mayor agrees with Schreiber that the budget numbers are not surprising. “We just know more than we knew before,” Wagenius said. “Obviously this kind of number makes news.”

Construction challenges

Some of the increase reflects construction challenges that were revealed by what project staff calls advanced engineering. For example, the wetlands next to BNSF tracks north of Olson Highway do not make for a solid foundation for a rail line, and the staff now proposes sinking pilings into the soft soils beneath the ponds and building a bridge on those pilings.

The route will also need eight light rail bridges instead of five. Plans also call for four park-and-rides rather than three; an overpass between a parking facility and the station at 63rd Avenue to make it safer to cross freight tracks; and the reconstructing of five roadway bridges instead of one.

And rather than a partial rebuild of Olson Highway to accommodate light rail tracks down the center, staff now thinks it will need a full reconstruction between I-94 and the BNSF right of way that runs between Golden Valley and Minneapolis.

Some add-ons

But a few of the additions are political. Project staff had proposed a station at either Plymouth Avenue or Golden Valley Road. The cities want both, and both are in the budget. A park-and-ride facility at Golden Valley Road is also being discussed, though it’s not yet in the budget.

So while a lot of the added cost is due to unknowns discovered as the project advanced, some are add-ons to enhance service, safety and relations with the cities along the line.

So if the $1 billion number wasn’t realistic, why use it at all, wondered Schreiber?

Soler said it would be hard to imagine describing the alignment of the proposed line being studied in the draft environmental impact statement without someone asking how much it would cost. The Federal Transit Administration also requires an estimated cost when the draft EIS is submitted for review, he said.

Constructing new LRT bridges across Grace Pond
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
The Met Council hopes to minimize floodplain impacts by retaining freight rail on the existing embankment and constructing new LRT bridges across Grimes Pond.

Like other regional light rail projects, this one began under the sponsorship of a county rail authority, this time, Hennepin. It was the county that crafted the $1 billion cost estimate in conjunction with the draft environmental impact statement.

At least one committee member was alarmed by the higher budget number. Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte represents the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the five-county agency that collects and distributes the quarter-cent transit sales tax.

“C-TIB is in for 31 percent of this, so this is a hit to C-TIB of $143,000,500,” Schulte said. “I know my colleagues on C-TIB are going to ask me if everyone in the room understands that this is $143 million additional dollars that we weren’t expecting in our budget and wondering if this  $1.448 billion should be a top number now and it shouldn’t go any higher.”

Concessions to cities aren’t unusual

From the experience with the other light rail lines, cities that must give municipal consent to the alignment often get concessions in exchange for that consent, Schulte said. “C-TIB is going to have a problem with that. So I think we need to have a very frank discussion at some point as to whether 1.448 billion is the top or whether it’s going higher than that.”

Schulte’s comments were not speculative. Earlier in the same meeting, Golden Valley Council Member Andy Snope had said he would like the project to include a complete rebuild of the intersection at Theodore Wirth Parkway and Golden Valley Road.

Bottineau LRT cost drivers
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council
Bottineau LRT cost drivers

“We think this is a must,” Snope said. “There’s vehicle traffic, pedestrian traffic, bicycle traffic and now with light rail going through there it’s going to be even more.” He also asked for better bike and trail connections, something echoed by Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board member Meg Forney. (The Park Board will consider a resolution Wednesday asking that both stations, the rebuilt intersection and park and trail connections be funded as “critical elements of the project.”)

Later, Snope asked that Sochacki Park, which will be used for construction staging, will not only be brought back to its existing condition, but be improved as part of the project.

BNSF negotiations aren’t done

And while the budget includes costs of meeting whatever demands are made by BNSF to use its freight right of way, those negotiations have not been completed.

The corridor management committee will vote on the final alignment and budget on Nov. 12. That plan will be presented to the Met Council Dec. 9. The schedule for municipal consent will also be approved then, something that will happen over the first quarter of 2016.

In addition to Hennepin County, state law requires the consent of Brooklyn Park, Crystal, Golden Valley, Brooklyn Center, Robbinsdale and Minneapolis.

If approved by the federal government and funded by the state of Minnesota, Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and the Counties Transit Improvement Board, construction could begin in 2018 with an opening set for 2021. It is forecast to carry 27,000 weekday riders by the year 2040.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 11:19 am.

    There is ONE reason why “local officials are not freaking out about the 1.48B (that is BILLION folks) price tag”, it is not their money!!! If it was there own private driveway job and the contractor told them he would dig up and re-pave their driveway for $5,000 and then when the bill came he said “yeah that 5G was just a place saver give me $7,500” they would be screaming to high heaven! The funniest thing about the 1.48B price tag is that will not even be close to what will be spent, please show me projects by Government that come in at or under budget. Just say we need a blank check and be honest about it.

  2. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 11/03/2015 - 11:35 am.

    Let’s stop picking LPAs before knowing cost

    First, let me just point out how ridiculous it is to hear Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte whining about CTIB funds. Considering that CTIB directed over $10 million towards the City of Ramsey / County of Anoka interchange at U.S. 10 and Armstrong Boulevard constructed this year with literally –zero– benefit for transit users. Transit dollars being spent to make driving commutes easier – such an Anoka County thing to do.

    Anyways, Bottineau and Southwest have shown a few planning trends that need to be modified as we continue with these projects and proceed to future projects.

    1. Cost increases during planning will happen. But they should happen in a way that is still open to greater benefits as cost for a lesser-benefit-alternative approaches or exceeds potential alternatives with greater benefits. With Southwest LRT’s ballooning cost, maybe we could have resurrected the 3C or 3C-Alt2 alignment (connecting via Uptown/Lyn-Lake) for the same cost but with higher benefits. Likewise, as Bottineau’s price tag goes up as engineering is refined, we may be able to get added benefits – such as stronger connections to the Broadway/Penn and North Memorial areas – without marginal cost relative to the lower-but-increasing-cost Bassett Creek routing chosen as the Locally Preferred Alternative.

    It comes down to this: Let’s discuss costs and benefits in parallel until shovels hit the ground, rather than committing to a “value” alignment and then being all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ when the cost goes up 50% or more. For things like tunnles under parks and bridges over the Grimes Pond which are being planned precisely because these low-development corridors *were supposedly* going to make the chosen alignment more cost effective. If we’re going to build viaducts and tunnels, let’s at least do it in a way that brings stations to the doorsteps of tens of thousands more transit riders. (I realize there are FTA guidelines possibly preventing this sort of parallel process. But that’s not an excuse – let’s pressure the FTA to change their process.)

    2. Let’s be honest about the types of land uses that are compatible with high cost, high amenity rail backbones of our regional transit system. We need development oriented transit before we need transit oriented development. Sorry Brooklyn Park (especially north of 610) and sorry Eden Prairie… your land uses are designed for drive-up transit rather than walk-up transit. And as we’ve seen from the new Green Line compared to the “Red Line” or Northstar, walk-up transit beats drive-up transit every place every time. To this end, we need to be honest about how far these extensions should go. The Blue Line should probably terminate in Robbinsdale rather than a farm field north of our second beltway. And the Green Line should probably terminate in Hopkins rather than a parking ramp close to the Carver County border.

    3. This should be obvious: Roadway reconstruction projects associated with LRT projects should be funded with road dollars, not transit dollars. Of course we need to revamp local streets to be walkable, development-friendly, and connected (and, by extension, transit compatible). But realignments like the proposed Wirth/Golden Valley Rd redo, or the widening of Cedar Ave for car commuters in Apple Valley with CTIB/Red Line dollars, or Olson Memorial and West Broadway streetscape work alongside the Bottineau project should not be funded with transit dollars. Transit should be funded with transit dollars, not streetscapes of (gasp) added roadway capacity.

    • Submitted by Scott Schulte on 11/05/2015 - 08:31 am.


      Matthew, As an astute “observer” of local transit politics it should be obvious to you that the 10.2 million allocated to Anoka County’s Armstrong project was earmarked for the rail bridge only and not for the highway bridge over 10. It should also be obvious that it is meant for Northstar safety and not for transportation advancement. With a CTIB budget of over 105,000,000.00 annually to be spent on the advancement of transit projects in the metro area, it seems only fair to send less than 10% to Anoka County for a project when we are a good portion of the funding stream.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 11/03/2015 - 11:52 am.

    Wise planning not necessarily always cutting corners

    The high cost of constructing and installing an LRT line calls for wise, farsighted planning. Lessons should be drawn from previous projects. Putting LRT rails on the surface of downtown streets was a cost reducing measure that seriously degraded performance (both speed and capacity); they should have been tunneled. Putting the Green Line on the surface of University Avenue rather than along I-94 meant the expensive train would merely serve as a streetcar with few stops, not as a reasonably high speed Metropolitan trunk line (for local service a modern streetcar line would have been far cheaper and provided better access). Without having studied the Bottineau extension, I have the impression from Callaghan’s article that the modifications or additions he mentions seem to be sensible features .

    Let’s just make sure that an LRT train runs as a train can and should, and that it serves long-term transportation needs.

  4. Submitted by Scott Stansbarger on 11/03/2015 - 11:54 am.

    I understand what you’re saying, Joe Smith…

    I understand what you’re saying, Joe Smith, however, it IS their money. As you said, these ARE local officials – they don’t fly in from out of state so they too will have to pay their share of taxes to pay for this.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    Scott, I am glad they will pay their taxes for something they believe in, my problem is they make all of us who know they won’t stay in their budget and don’t believe this adds value to pay for their project also. If it was a profit maker you would have private companies lining up to do the project and the competition would lower cost. Just another Government boondoggle sold at X but costing us Y.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/03/2015 - 02:01 pm.

      Not necessarily

      I don’t agree, based on my experience as a similar committee observer in Denver for their FasTracks expansion.

      “…If it was a profit maker you would have private companies lining up to do the project and the competition would lower cost…” was not my experience. What seems more likely is that, if it was a profit maker, we’d have private companies lining up to do the project, and that competition would lower the BIDS. Once the contracts had been awarded, however, various “unforeseen circumstances” would arise, and costs would usually be higher, the degree depending upon the profit margin necessary to make private investors happy.

      The argument that big construction projects like this are automatically a “boondoggle” because they’re a government initiative doesn’t hold water. The construction will be done by private companies as contractors, not some sort of consortium of government employees. If the costs are exorbitant, blame those private contractors for trying to rip off taxpayers. They know they’re building a government project, and their approach is often pretty much as you’ve stated it – since it isn’t THEIR money, at least not much of it, they don’t mind billing the government (that is, you and me) the maximum they think they can get away with and still get the job. That’s not a flaw of government, it’s something built into private enterprise.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 03:32 pm.

        Ray, it comes down to elected officials are politicians not negotiators, they strike bad deals to start the process, putting way to much of our tax dollars at stake. This is often followed up by a shady bidding system where curry is favored to certain groups, again raising the cost. In the real world when you sign a contract to bring in the project at lets say 1M your profit is built in, overrun is on you and your company. That has never been the case with Government jobs and never will be.
        All of this starts with negotiating a great agreement or poor agreement. Trump is correct on one point, politicians negotiate bad deals.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/03/2015 - 01:44 pm.

    I can’t enthusiastically second this enough, other than to add that as far as I can tell a big part of the cause of this mess is the suburbs being the tail that wags the dog. We give influence that is evenly spread among an ever-growing set of municipalities of arbitrary size. It’s the electoral college of the metro area.

  7. Submitted by Dan Berg on 11/04/2015 - 06:14 am.

    Easy solution to the arguing

    All the arguments and fighting over these projects is wasted and it doesn’t matter if it is around building road or rail. There is no way to judge if an increase in costs push a project into a “not worth it category” because there is never any cost/value calculation done in the first place. The cost could have gone up 400% and the arguments on both sides would be more or less the same because they don’t have any real data to go on. The EIS and other “studies” would be rejected as pure fluff in any venue other than the one in which they are used because they never quantify any of the benefits with units which would have meaning outside of the exact context in which they are presented. This makes comparing the projects against other alternatives or comparing the benefits to the costs almost impossible.

    The idea that “this is just the way it is” is completely disingenuous. Proper planning means understanding to what degree things are undecided or unknown and accounting for it. All of these projects are most defiantly boondoggles and that is why in order to progress they need to turn up the pressure slowly and continually come back for “just a bit more”. If this type of attitude happened elsewhere the planning agent would be fired and sued.

    If anybody wants to end the incompetence and wastefulness around transportation simply make each mode self funding, roads, rail, flight, whatever. Not only would it end the idiotic political scrum that these discussions turn in to (the small minded suburbs vs. city cliche) but it is the only way to truly encourage efficient development. Paying the true costs of transportation is the only honest way to encourage efficient choices on where people live.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 11/04/2015 - 12:24 pm.

      Dan, when the State puts 1.48T in a project it doesn’t matter if that project can self fund itself or not after it is up and running, they are now a too big to fail project that the state will fund forever.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/08/2015 - 11:43 am.

      Self funding is a pipe dream

      I can agree to a point, but self funding is a pipe dream, whatever the mode, system or project. Infrastructure is always going to drive choices of where to live, whether you want it built or not where you choose to live. We cannot do away with subsidy, but we can make certain that each makes more sense through accountability. You can say self pay for every mode, but how do you make that happen? All you can do is try and make things right

      Human life itself is a boondoggle these days, and we can only change that through careful planning at all levels of government and increasingly making folks pay for their own choices from the personal to the top levels of business and government.

      I use light rail and other mass transit when it makes sense, and I would give up my car if I could here in the Metro, but folks getting “free” subsidized MetroPasses through the University of MN park in front of my house for free and ride a few stops on light rail to their U destinations every day. If one could coordinate data for where cars are parked and where passes are used, you could make this subsidy work, but this one should go for now. In a perfect world, we’d all have transponders in our vehicles and pay for having them anywhere but on our own property.

      As far as transportation funding, only softer landings for those who blow it, not bailouts, make sense, but you should not get penalized for doing it right, you should get rewarded.

      Public transportation systems, roads and transit, are always going to show a loss, but it is one of the only subsidies that has the potential for increasing public revenue long term instead of dragging it down in the hit and miss of government spending. The way to reduce the misses is to make them hurt.

      What we need is a combined tiered system of local to federal funding that rewards success. There should be minimal federal requirements for funding roads and public transit, but the better they work, the higher the funding help should go.

  8. Submitted by Allan Wilson on 11/04/2015 - 02:26 pm.

    What’s another $500 million?

    The transitcrats (and other hangers on) has obviously learned their lesson from Southwest LRT–
    DON’T freak out about money in public. What’s a little $500 million among “friends?” There is little, if any, reason for the Bottineau line to exceed its budget. Adding a station here and there, “engineering” (?) costs, etc. are natural things. Bullroar. If the Green Line to St. Paul (the project from he..l) was (somehow) brought in for less than a billion, Bottineau should be able to do so as well.

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