January announcements of a re-calculated $2.7 billion price for the Southwest Light Rail project and the delay of passenger service to 2027 continues to be a dust-up. This is not the 14.5-mile project’s first rodeo, but it has been roped and tied down by a short stretch in Minneapolis with a water problem.
The project’s controversial cut-and-cover tunnel a bit north of Lake Street is the largest chunk of what the Met Council calculates will be a $450 million or more price hike. The re-inclusion of Eden Prairie’s Town Center station into the project at $4 million, and the mile-long railroad crash protection wall near downtown Minneapolis at $93 million are much smaller parts of the spike.
The Met Council, stakeholders, critics and lawmakers are at odds about the next steps for what has recently been rebranded the Metro Green Line Extension. It’s complicated.
The progress of building out a metro-wide, multi-modal transit system and the humble hope of riding Metro Green Line trains from Eden Prairie to a job in Hopkins, a health clinic in St. Louis Park or a St. Paul Saints baseball game in 2023, 2024, 2025 or 2026, are soaked by groundwater.
A high water table and “unforeseen” soil conditions along the tunnel’s narrow, half-mile-long construction area have required advanced and expensive secant piling to create a dry workspace. Scuba divers have been called in. Highly trained crews have been delicately operating large construction machines in tight spaces between freight rail tracks on one side and housing on the other.
View a short video on the tunnel’s construction.
For years, doubters spoke of a high water table and argued that construction vibrations could weaken building foundations. But their legal challenge was rejected by the courts. Required environmental reviews and soil testing gave the Met Council, its consultants, designers and contractors confidence in green-lighting the tunnel.
As critics launched a new battery of we-warned-you darts at the Met Council, suburban mayors along the line said their communities want the project to move forward.
“We have already welcomed substantial commercial and residential development projects around the four transit stations in our city,” wrote Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case in a Feb. 3 news release. “That would not have occurred without the promise of LRT.”
The day before, Case’s mayoral counterparts shared their reactions directly to Alexander and Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle during a meeting of the Corridor Management Committee, one of the project’s oversight panels.
“These are significant bumps in the road,” said Minnetonka Mayor Brad Wiersum. “But they’re bumps in the road … the reasons we are pursuing this project are still valid.”
Hopkins Mayor Patrick Hanlon noted that “the timing of this project is as big as anything.” Developers need assurances that the project will hit its next target. Residents wonder how much longer will the project’s vast storage lots be needed?
“We are going to figure out how to solve the issue of the higher cost,” said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland. “I think we need to move full speed ahead. … We’re going to end up with a tremendous light rail system that makes us a globally significant player from an economical development standpoint.”
A week and a half after the Met Council announcement, the mood on the “Kenilworth pinch-point” darkened further. Residents of the Calhoun Isles Condominiums reported hallway and common room cracks. The Met Council dispatched structural engineers to investigate. Inches separate parts of the aging, high-rise residence from the shell within which the tunnel will be built. Last week, a break in a city water main serving the construction area flooded the condo’s adjacent, underground garage. The StarTribune reports that the cause of the break is being investigated.
The oversight panel
The Corridor Management Committee (CMC) has been meeting quarterly since December 2010. Its members are mostly elected city and elected Hennepin County officials and Met Council members.
Jim Alexander, a geotechnical engineer, has been providing project updates to SWLRT’s various oversight committees since 2011. He was the Met Council’s design manager of the Green Line LRT. Since June 2014, the Green Line has served the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the University of Minnesota, the Midway, the State Capitol, six major sports venues, and scores of businesses, neighborhoods and intersecting bus routes.
Seated in the project’s St. Louis Park headquarters for the Feb. 2 meeting, Alexander wore a headset fixed with a microphone. He spoke calmly to a computer camera.
Meeting moderator Zelle, Hennepin County Commissioners Chris LaTondresse, Debbie Goettel and others were arranged in a row of thumbnails above Alexander’s head. Their tiny images popped to full screen when they spoke. Eden Prairie community leader Asad Alywed and City Council Member Kathy Nelson were linked in but did not speak.
On my home office desktop in Eden Prairie, I spotted folders and reports spread out on tables behind Alexander. Among them was a hard hat, a blaze-orange safety vest and a bike helmet with tinted goggles. The captain of a multi-billion dollar transit project commutes to work on a bicycle. It was Groundhog Day.
Jake Spano has represented St. Louis Park at CMC meetings for eight years. He’s recognized as an informed transit advocate and has confidence in SWLRT’s leadership team. He knew most everyone gathered on the collegial streaming platform.
The St. Louis Park mayor’s questions for Alexander were sculpted with diplomatic care: Why hadn’t the geology and soil experts identified problems along the Kenilworth tunnel site? How are consultants held accountable?
Alexander explained that the consulting engineers, designers, contractors and specialized equipment suppliers agreed that advanced excavation and piling methods were required. Those methods were used. But contractors installing sheet piling approaching the high-rise condo complex determined the need for even more advanced and expensive methods. Big projects, Alexander noted, typically have lots of change orders to respond to unpredictables. The Green Line from Target Field to Union Station, Alexander recalled, had more than 1,700 of them.
The thumbnails listened intently.
“We have a lot of smart consulting engineers working on this project,” Alexander said. “We pretty much have, ah, most of the engineering firms in the region working on our project in some fashion or another, and we rely on those engineering consultants to help guide us on what we’re doing here.”
Alexander said that the tunnel will be the last part to be completed and that fare service would soon follow. “We’ll get this thing done,” said the determined project director, “but it is complicated.”
Referring to the four-year delay, Commissioner Goettel was more direct: What would happen to the project’s 27 new light rail passenger cars?
Alexander said that 16 of the 17 new LRT cars are being readied for service with advanced security cameras at the Franklin shop in Minneapolis. The project website notes that some of the cars are already carrying passengers on the Blue Line.
Committee discussion about project transparency, accountability and the merit of scheduling more frequent updates and Q&A sessions for CMC resonated with moderator Zelle and the gathered.
“It’s about trust with (county/city) residents, it’s about transparency,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando. “We are here to build a regional transit system that serves our residents that connects folks to health care, jobs, and family and livelihood.”
Alexander also spoke of the Met Council’s Jan. 26 authorization for SWLRT to engage a new framework for the project management process. The settlement agreement includes dispute resolution protocols for SWLRT and its contractors, ensures that costs are properly vetted and documented, establishes a new construction schedule, and defines a new payment for costs. It also avoids litigation.
Alexander’s PowerPoint show had been packed with good news. The project’s heavy construction phase was more than 60% complete. Tracks have and will continue to be laid. Bridges are up. Many stations are ready for electricity, security cameras, ticket machines, and trains.
Meanwhile back on Capitol Hill
On Jan. 31, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Mpls, introduced legislation that calls for a full review of SWLRT by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. OLA would look closely at its cost overruns, work delays, staffing, construction quality and management process. Dibble’s senate district includes the Kenilworth Corridor.
Some Republican legislators were calling for the project to stop work until a full audit was completed and reviewed.
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Sen. Dibble introduced Senate File 3435, a bill that would shift management of the SWLRT project from the Met Council to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The fact that Zelle also served five years as MNDOT commissioner and that MNDOT had become a consultant for SWLRT may seem to foreshadow an easy switch. But switching agency stewardship of a big and complex project that has already made changes and the legislative slowness of any controversial bill would seem to dampen Dibble’s initiative.
The local response
Rep. Steve Elkins told EPLN that there is “no enthusiasm” for the bill in the House Local Government Committee. Elkins, a Democrat, is vice chair of this committee. It has “jurisdiction” over the Met Council. Elkins served eight years on the Met Council before representing parts of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina and Minnetonka in the House.
Elkins, however, does support a full audit review. So too do Gov.Tim Walz, Sen. Steve Cwodzinski and Reps. Laurie Pryor and Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn.
In an email to EPLN, Kotyza-Whitthuhn said that she opposes delaying the project until an audit is completed. “Further delays,” she said, “don’t serve Eden Prairie residents and will almost certainly lead to increased costs.”
Long-time public transit champions Mayor Case, Council Member Nelson, and former Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens also support an audit.
As mayor, Tyra-Lukens attended or moderated many give-and-take SWLRT oversight and planning meetings and public hearings.
“The one thing I know about transportation,” Tyra-Lukens said in a recent phone interview, “is that people complain about it, complain about it, complain about it. If we hadn’t built this light rail, 10 years from now, they would have said, ‘Why didn’t you build it before?”’
Meanwhile back at the Capitol
The Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee concluded its Feb. 17 meeting with Zelle and Metro Transit’s Nick Thompson. The two had come to brief the committee about electric buses, transit appropriations and the Blue and Green Line Extension projects.
Prefacing the Q&A session, Committee Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, volunteered an opinion: “I personally believe that the amount of money and the delays that have gone into this particular project are, ahhh, almost criminal. I really don’t see where it’s serving the public well at all.”
Newman, a lawyer, was the Republican nominee for attorney general in the 2014 election.
Zelle agreed that SWLRT had become very expensive but warned that stopping the project is not an option. He said that the partner cities and the Federal Transit Administration want it completed. Abandoning SWLRT could be even more expensive than completing it.
The project’s higher cost-per-mile, he added, remains reasonable and is lower than other comparable light rail projects. SWLRT is part of a developing multi-modal transit system, a generational investment. SWLRT’s actual return-of-investment can only be calculated over a number of years with bus and light rail systems factored in.
Streaming from a remote location, Dibble again shared the perspectives of some of his constituents: the Kenilworth route was chosen before benefit analyses and environmental studies were completed and freight rail issues worked out. Requests to seriously consider alternate routes between downtown and St. Louis Park were dismissed.
By “hook or crook,” he added, it is where Hennepin County always wanted to run light rail.
The county was the SWLRT project lead from 2005 to 2012 when, with residential and business communities and the cities of Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, selected locally preferred light rail alignments prior to final environmental investigations.
Zelle, who is one of Dibble’s constituents and lives a two-minute walk from the tunnel site, shared the Met Council’s take: Alternate routes to Kenilworth, including a freight spur through St. Louis Park, had been considered but did not measure up to Kenilworth.
Other than Dibble, the day’s jury was composed of senators from outer ring suburbs and rural Minnesota.
As Republican Sens. Dave Osmek of Mound and Julia Coleman of Waconia lectured Zelle about light rail transit, Green Line LRT trains were cruising along University Avenue 230 feet away.
Coleman claimed that SWLRT is viewed as competition to SouthWest Transit, the commuter bus service for Eden Prairie, Chanhassen and Chaska. She informed the Met Council chair that SouthWest Transit coaches have WiFi and will get from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis 30 minutes faster than light rail. “Why are we still pursuing these light rail projects?” she asked.
Zelle, a former CEO and current board member of Jefferson Bus Lines, politely repeated what he had said minutes earlier: The Green Line Extension with 16 stations will be a very different service that goes every 10 minutes all day long. He calls it a connecting spine for existing and future bus routes. According to the Metro Green Line Extension website, 13 of its stations will be served by bus stops, including drop-offs and a Methodist Hospital shuttle.
Coleman, a former resident of Chanhassen, apparently, did not know that SouthWest Transit and the Metro Green Line Extension have been planning multi-modal service from their joint hub at SouthWest Station in Eden Prairie.
Given the project’s ballooning Kenilworth tunnel costs, Zelle told committee chair Newman that the accountability questions that have been raised are reasonable. His agency will be open and looks forward to an audit and will share the requested documents.
Zelle reminded the panel that the Met Council has a record of delivering transit projects on time and below budget and has confidence in the Met Council team in managing the completion of the project. Its settlement with the consultants and contractors provides a clear process for budgeting, bidding, scheduling and accountability.
For Charlie Zelle’s PowerPoint presentation to the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Commission, click here.
Big Buck Project Comparisons
$5.5 billion SoFi Stadium, Englewood, California — site of 2022 Super Bowl
$1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium — home of the Minnesota Vikings
$2.7 billion Metro Green Line Extension — projected cost
$693.6 million New Highway 36 bridge over the St. Croix River
This is the second of a three-part EPLN series on the Metro Green Line Extension project, also known as Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT). Part One of the series is here.
Editor’s notes: Nancy Tyra-Lukens, quoted in this story, is chair of the Eden Prairie Local News Board of Directors. Writer Jeff Strate is also a member of the EPLN Board and has served on the SWLRT Community Advisory Committee.