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The Met Council is running out of friends at the Minnesota Capitol

The news that the Southwest Light Rail is now going to cost hundreds of millions more — and be delayed even longer — has led more Democrats to question how the project has been managed by the 16-member council. 

At last week’s Senate Transportation Committee, Met Council Charlie Zelle faced hostile questioning. Nick Thompson, deputy general manager of Metro Transit, is at right.
At last week’s Senate Transportation Committee, Met Council Charlie Zelle faced hostile questioning. Nick Thompson, deputy general manager of Metro Transit, is at right.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

The Metropolitan Council has never lacked for enemies.

Legislative Republicans especially have targeted the regional transit, sewage and planning agency for its backing of light rail transit and its power over land use policy in the Twin Cities. Rarely is the council mentioned without the preface “unelected.”

But now the agency is having a hard time finding friends even among DFLers. The announcement earlier this year that the under-construction Southwest Light Rail transit project is going to cost hundreds of millions more and take three years longer to complete has led more legislative Democrats to question the managers if not the project itself.

It was already the state’s most expensive construction project, and the additional cost now pushes the total price tag to $2.7 billion, with at least $500 million of that unfunded by the federal government or Hennepin County. All this for a route alignment that even key supporters of light rail have questioned for a decade or more while complaining that the council leaders ignored disagreement. 

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“When information came to light that there might be some pretty serious downsides and consequences to this alignment, those got dismissed,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. “And here we are with a lot of costs and a lot of delays.”

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble
Now Dibble is leading the demand for an audit of the project by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, an effort that has support from Republicans and Gov. Tim Walz, who appoints the chair and members of the Met Council. 

There’s even agreement from that chair, Charlie Zelle, who has been in full damage-control mode for weeks.“We come with great humility and also great honesty and transparency,” Zelle told the Senate Transportation Committee last week, saying he embraces the audit. 

Calls for a pause

Zelle has been savaged by several legislative committees this session. The Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Governance spent nearly two hours last month quizzing him and project managers on the problems with the 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line, which will run from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

During a break from that meeting, co-chair Julia Coleman, R-Chanhassen, was asked about proposals to make the Met Council elected instead of appointed. “If the members of the public saw how this project is being handled and the members of the Met Council were elected positions, none of them would be re-elected, and there was bipartisan agreement about that.”

State Rep. Cheryl Youakim
State Rep. Cheryl Youakim
Even supporters had to qualify that support given the overruns on time and budget for the Southwest LRT project. “I’m just as frustrated as others with the delay and the costs, but this will be a project that will benefit a whole region. We are already seeing that benefit in economic development,” said Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins. 

At last week’s Senate Transportation Committee, Zelle again faced hostile questioning — at least hostile for Minnesota lawmakers.

“In my mind, I don’t agree with you,” Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said of Zelle’s assertion that the project is still an economic benefit. “This is a horrendously expensive project. It sounds like you’re too far into it to quit, and if you do quit we probably wind up with the most-expensive bike trail in the nation.

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“It’s almost as if the Met Council is refusing to admit that there was an error and we’re going to go forward no matter what,” Newman said.

Some lawmakers have called for a pause in construction, and others have called for canceling it. 

Zelle said Southwest LRT is more than 60 percent complete and that the Met Council would be required to return federal funding if the project was canceled. It has received about $213 million of the $929 million pledged by the Federal Transit Administration so far, with another $100 million due in 2022. When those funds were granted in the summer of 2020, the amount was half the project cost. Once that happens, however, the FTA does not pay a share of any increases to the project budget.

Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said of Zelle’s assertion that the project is still an economic benefit, “In my mind, I don’t agree with you.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said of Zelle’s assertion that the project is still an economic benefit, “In my mind, I don’t agree with you.”
Sen. David Osmek, R- Mound, asked if the state could cancel the project without repaying the money and asked Zelle to inquire about it. An FTA spokesperson this week said the full-funding grant agreements are binding contracts that obligate the Met Council to complete the project by agreed-upon dates and cover all cost overruns.

“Generally speaking, if a project sponsor chooses to not complete a project, it would result in a breach of the Full Funding Grant Agreement, and remedies FTA may pursue would include recovery of any Federal funds spent on the project,” the agency said.

Problems come at awkward time for Walz

”I’m here not to defend, but to represent where we are,” Zelle told the Senate committee. “There’s a lot of hindsight.” 

Topping the list of problems is the route and the tunnel required to squeeze trains through a corridor south of the Kenilworth Channel connecting Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Minneapolis to allow freight rail lines to remain on the surface. That was caused by a demand from St. Louis Park that the freight alignment through the suburb not be changed.

Both of those choices are the result of the routing decision itself, which uses a rail corridor purchased decades ago by Hennepin County when other routes through Minneapolis were preferred by many in the city. 

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Objections by neighbors of the route led to an unsuccessful federal lawsuit. Now, problems with soils in the tunnel area and possible damage to a nearby condo building — both warned of — have required a renegotiated contract with builders and a work stoppage.

Being able to say “we told you so” isn’t much of a salve for owners of the Cedar Isles condos near the tunnel construction, who now have the damage they predicted, damage Metro Transit engineers said wouldn’t happen.

Engineering, testing and feasibility studies supported the cut and cover tunnel, Zelle  said. “It clearly has caused the predominant issue we are facing now in terms of costs and delays.”

State Sen. David Osmek
State Sen. David Osmek
But Zelle said the new agreement with the consortium building the project avoids even higher costs, and that the Met Council has contractual rights to enforce the budget and timeline with both carrots and sticks. And in what was either a defense of the larger price tag or a comment on the high cost of light rail across the U.S., Zelle said the cost per mile — $200 million — is still lower than comparable projects.

It all comes at an awkward time for Walz, who is asking for $200 million from the Legislature for planning and design of the next proposed light rail line: the extension of the Blue Line through North Minneapolis, Crystal and Brooklyn Park.

“How can we trust as a Legislature that the Met Council can properly manage or deliver on the next line in a reasonable fashion and a reasonable dollar figure without it being another boondoggle?” asked Osmek. 

Osmek is a longtime critic of the project and has sponsored bills to make members of the Met Council elected. Currently, the chair and 16 members are appointed by the governor are subject to Senate confirmation but rarely come up for hearings or votes. Walz has put in a change that allows local elected officials to review applicants and recommend names. But generally, items pass unanimously, as did the motion to accept the new budget and timetable for Southwest LRT earlier this month.

Support for audit

Dibble isn’t an insignificant critic. He is the ranking DFLer on the Senate Transportation Committee and has been a close ally of fellow Minneapolis lawmaker Frank Hornstein, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. Both have been supporters of transit and light rail in the past, but have also been frenemies of the project, critical of the route and the way project staff has worked with residents — and now the tunnel debacle. 

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Dibble this week introduced a bill to transfer light rail construction management from the Met Council to the state Department of Transportation. 

State Rep. Frank Hornstein
State Rep. Frank Hornstein
Both Dibble and Hornstein had earlier asked for outside investigations into the threat of tunnel construction to a nearby condo building. The pair asked the Legislative Auditor last summer to look into the contract dispute between Metro Transit and its primary contractor on the project.   

“We believe that a review of project management and costs is timely and potentially impactful, particularly given the significant public investment in Southwest LRT, its importance to the regional transit system, and the ongoing challenges faced by the project,” they wrote.

They now are teaming up on the audit.

“We did feel a special review was needed given the cost overruns, the amount of the overruns and the fact that there was no clear idea what was causing those or a start date for the project,” said Hornstein as his committee passed the audit bill without dissent. The cost is estimated to be $200,000. 

Their call for a full audit of the project has the support of Republicans in the Legislature as well as DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

Gov. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Gov. Tim Walz
“I don’t think when something like this goes, it’s on auto-pilot,” Walz said. But he stopped short of supporting a pause in construction. 

Other DFL leaders weren’t as sure. “I think the economic impact might be larger if we have a pause, but I’m open to it,” said Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina.

In his comments on the project, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, illustrated the political dilemma the overruns and delays have presented to DFLers: how to criticize the project’s management without criticizing the project itself. 

“We have to learn from the mistakes in building this project with an audit. But we have to separate that with the importance of building mass transit infrastructure in the Twin Cities Metro Area,” Winkler said. “We have to do it better than we did with this project,” but Metro Transit has completed other projects on time and on budget, he said. 

“This can be managed well. It can be managed well. But the commitment to mass transit has to be very strong,” he said.

Republicans are taking full advantage of the situation, reminding all that they predicted many of these outcomes. “We need a pause on this, permanently,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt. “The project should never have happened.”

(Correction: members of the Metropolitan Council are subject to confirmation by the Senate, though they rarely are brought in for confirmation hearings or votes. The original version of this article stated council members are not subject to confirmation.)