The first significant contract for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project could have been a disaster.
Although six manufacturers took a look at the specifications for the 27 light rail vehicles that will be purchased for the project, only one company actually submitted a bid. “It was a procurement that we didn’t get as much response to, to be frank,” Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck said last month.
In fact, the bid, which is expected to be accepted when the Met Council meets Wednesday, was well under what was budgeted for the initial purchase of cars. Siemens Industry Inc. said it would build the 27 vehicles for $118.092 million; Metro Transit had budgeted $125 million. Siemens didn’t know it was the only bidder until after its bid was submitted in March.
Siemens provided the vehicles for the first phase of the Green Line, but the Southwest LRT sets will have a slightly different design, with the center section placing seats facing a wider center aisle, something that will aid boarding for passengers using wheelchairs.
Mark Fuhrmann, who directs the light rail program as Metro Transit’s deputy general manager, said the other potential builders told the agency that the 27-vehicle-order wasn’t large enough to fit within their business plans.
“They said their business priorities were in other places and decided not to make a proposal,” Fuhrmann said. Still, the bid was comparable to what other transit agencies have recently paid for light rail vehicles, and was so much less than what had been budgeted that Metro Transit staff recommended that the agency purchase one extra vehicle, for an additional $3.9 million.
Such a purchase seemed in line with the stated desires of the project’s Corridor Management Committee (CMC), which is made up of some Met Council members along with elected officials from the county and cities along the Southwest LRT route, a 14.5 mile extension of the Green Line that will run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
When that committee cut the scope of the project last summer — a response to cost overruns — it reduced the number of vehicles from 30 to 27. Since that was considered to be the minimum needed, the CMC members stated that buying additional vehicles should be the first use of the project’s contingency funds.
Technically, the money that would be used to buy a 28th car wouldn’t have come from contingency funds but from money already budgeted for rail vehicles. But Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who chairs both the county Regional Rail Authority and the Counties Transit Improvement Board, objected. (Of the $1.858 billion project cost, the rail authority is paying $185.8 million and CTIB is paying $516.5 million.)
In a letter to Duininck, McLaughlin noted that the funding resolutions passed by both agencies require that money resulting from low bids must be place in the contingency funds. Once there, it can only be allocated by a special committee that manages the light rail budget, a committee that consists of Duininck, one Hennepin County commissioner and three of the county commissioners from CTIB.
McLaughlin’s objections appeared procedural, saying that the proposal to buy an extra vehicle must be made by the control board. In response, the Met Council’s transportation committee amended its resolution and did not direct staff to purchase the 28th vehicle, though chair Lona Schreiber said she hoped the issue could be resolved quickly.