The Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) project is now slated by the Metropolitan Council for passenger service in 2027. Minnesota’s most expensive public works project’s revised, final bill could hover around $2.75 billion.
A year ago, the 14.5-mile, light rail project connecting Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and Minneapolis was slated to carry riders in 2023 with an estimated $2 billion price tag. “Unexpected” construction challenges in Minneapolis and, to a lesser degree, a price hike for the Town Center Station in Eden Prairie have increased the projected tab.
Note: EPLN will gradually begin referring to “Southwest Light Rail” as “Metro Green Line Extension,” the Metropolitan Council’s new brand for the line. For clarity, however, EPLN will use both names interchangeably.
Last week’s announcement ignited controversy widely covered over the weekend by regional news outlets. The StarTribune reported on Sunday that Senate transportation committee chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, support freezing funds until an audit is completed. An audit could take a year, but state statute already limits state funding to $30 million, only 6% of the total budget. The bulk comes from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Hennepin County and its regional railroad authority.
Also over the weekend, ranking minority transportation committee member Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, told the StarTribune that even though he is not surprised by the higher cost, he is also calling for a full audit this legislative session.
In July, Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, requested an analysis of the project’s decision-making process by the non-partisan Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA). Both Democrats support light rail, but their request was prompted in July when Hennepin County irrigated SWLRT’s nearly dry contingency well with $200 million.
The OLA report in the form of a memo arrived on Oct. 28. It noted ongoing disputes between the project and its major engineering consultant. Since Dec. 2014, AECOM Technical Services (ATS) has assisted the Met Council in determining the likely scope, schedule, costs and impact of the project whole, as well as its requested change orders.
ATS and other consultants help Met Council staff prepare to negotiate with civil construction general contractor Lunda/McCrosson Joint Venture (LMJV) and operating systems general contractor Aldridge/Parsons Joint Venture (APJV).
Correspondence between SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander and ATS can be reviewed in the Auditor’s memo here.
Alexander’s presentations to the Met Council and an array of SWLRT oversight committees typically note that change orders kick in when aberrant weather, hidden soil conditions, higher fuel costs, supply line delays and inflation affect the work.
A change order for a mile-long safety barrier near downtown between light rail tracks and a Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline totaled $93 million. As of mid-August 2021, the Met Council had executed 461 change orders costing a reported $203 million. Not all them had costs. A change order for the Kenilworth tunnel has yet to be negotiated.
As of this week, the project is said to be more that 60% complete.
Since 2019, construction contractors have installed 95 miles of piles and poured more than 200,000 cubic yards of concrete to complete 11 of 16 stations, 25 of 29 bridges and 7 of 8 tunnels.
A total 114 of 131 retaining walls have been completed or are under construction. Additionally, 95% of 946 private utilities and 75% of nearly 1,300 public utilities have been completed and tracks have been laid in Eden Prairie and Hopkins.
The Met Council’s Jan. 26 approval to set a revised budget and its authorization to expend the contingency fund, and create a dispute resolution process was welcomed by Alexander and Nick Thompson. Thompson is director of transit capital programs.
It will enable the Met Council to reset the remaining civil construction phases with contractor LMJV and negotiate with contractor APJV for the installation and testing of system infrastructure that includes traction power units, overhead catenary power lines and vending, ticketing, safety and security systems at the stations.
Click here to read the settlement.
Town Center Station and Kenilworth Tunnel and the crash wall
Eden Prairie’s Town Center Station had been put on the build-in-the-future shelf in 2015 with Gov. Mark Dayton’s order to cap SWLRT project costs. It re-entered the project after May 15, 2018 when the Eden Prairie City Council agreed to pay 20% of the station’s nearly $7.7 million estimated price tag.
The city’s contribution qualified the station for a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Grant from the FTA.
But, according to a Met Council spokesperson in a Jan. 27 email to EPLN, the estimated cost of the station in 2020 was roughly $4 million more than it had been two years earlier.
During virtual presentations to the project’s Corridor Management Committee on Dec. 1, 2021 and the full Met Council on Jan. 23, Alexander said that in spite of environmental studies, testings and advanced design work for the Kenilworth tunnel, the soils and a high water table proved more problematic than anticipated.
The 2870-foot-long tunnel is being built in a narrow, 50-foot wide trench that is pinched in by Twin Cities & Western Railroad tracks on one side and a high-rise residential complex and homes on the other.
The “pinch point” challenge is constructing a sealed, cut-and-cover, tunnel within which two LRT tubes will be nested. Landscaped hike and bike trails are planned for the tunnel’s mantel. Alexander said the tunnel will be the last segment of the new line to be constructed before passenger service.
A short Met Council video illustrates the construction complexities.
The estimated cost of the stronger, $93 million crash protection wall required by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway was determined after the original bid for a less mighty wall had been approved.
In spite of the price spike, the Metro Green Line Extension’s projected cost per mile is comparable to similar light rail projects.
Alexander points out that the project’s revised $180 million cost per mile remains smaller than LRT projects in Houston, Portland and Seattle. Those range between $200 million and $500 million per mile.
During the Dec. 1 meeting of the project’s Corridor Management Committee, an oversight panel with officials from the line’s five cities and Hennepin County, St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano said he wants a simpler way of presenting project data to St. Louis Park residents.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, recognized by peers as one of Southwest Light Rail’s most articulate advocates, added that there’s a lot of anger about the project. Some doubters, he said, “call the whole thing a joke.” Edina residents will be served by the the Blake Ave. Station in Hopkins and the Golden Triangle and City West stations in Eden Prairie.
Hovland strongly suggested that project staff and the partner cities should talk more about the return on investment along the new line.
Met Council Charlie Zelle agreed with both mayors. “Although this is a longer schedule and a higher cost, it is still an investment well worth it … Let’s not lose sight of what those benefits are.”
According to current Met Council calculations, the light rail project has already prompted approximately $2 billion of investments within a 10-minute walk of its route.
A proposed 425-apartment complex near the Golden Triangle station is a an example of the kind of investments being made in Hopkins and Eden Prairie. The Blue Stem project on Flying Cloud Drive includes multiple buildings as tall as six stories, walking trails, pools, pickleball courts, wetlands, a dog run and a short walk to light rail trains, all within a job-rich pocket of the southwest suburbs. The Greco Properties plan is currently being reviewed by City of Eden Prairie planners for consideration by the City Council. Read EPLN’s Jan. 11, 2022 story about the Blue Stem project here.
Editors note: This is part 1 of a 3-part EPLN series on the Metro Green Line Extension (SWLRT) project. Writer Jeff Strate has served on the SWLRT Community Advisory Committee. Jeff is also a member of the Board of Directors of EPLN.
This story was updated Feb. 2 to correct a reference to the Congestion Mitigaton and Air Quality Grant.
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