The three-month-long rebuild of the eastbound Highway 212 off-ramp at SouthWest Station that began on April 10 marked the launch of the final season of heavy construction work on light rail in Eden Prairie. The 14.5-mile Metro Green Line Extension project has famously endured significant cost overruns and delays, political hyperbole, and clickbait headlines.
- “Southwest LRT’s rocky mess,” MinnPost, July 20. 2021.
- “SWLRT wreck came despite plenty of warning,” StarTribune, Jan. 31, 2022.
- “The Southwest Light Rail Boondoggle Continues,” Freedom Foundation of Minnesota website, Feb. 22, 2023.
The big delays have been along a short stretch of the Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis, between the Lake Street Bridge and a bit north of Cedar Lake Parkway. A tunnel is being built through a “pinch point” and difficult soils for two LRT tracks that will be shoe-horned between a single freight rail line and a high-rise condominium. The tunnel’s concrete cover will be upholstered with shrubbery, grasses and flowers, bike and hike trails, and benches. Click here for a three-minute video on tunnel construction.
Back in 2019, when construction began on what was then called Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT), the line was projected to carry passengers sometime this year. The prospect of riding a single light rail car from SouthWest Station to Lowertown for a Saints game remains a prospect, but one reset to 2027; a reset too for good bus-rail access to the job-rich southwest suburbs from, say, north Minneapolis.
Note: In most instances, this article refers to the subject project as “Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT)” rather than “Metro Green Line Extension,” its new branding.
In January 2021, the line’s projected cost was also reset from $2.2 billion to approximately $2.74 billion. The project had challenges. The Met Council was running out of money and was working out disputes with the project’s civil contractor.
SWLRT Project Director Jim Alexander described negotiations as “very detailed conversations” during an April 4 Corridor Management Committee (CMC) meeting. The committee includes elected and appointed members from each of the line’s five partner cities, Hennepin County, Metro Transit and MnDOT. The CMC is one of a number of SWLRT’s advisory and oversight committees.
In the ‘burbs
The project has moved forward much more smoothly in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Civil (heavy) construction work in Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and most of Hopkins is tapering down. Project spokesperson Trevor Roy tells EPLN that the civil work in Eden Prairie should be complete by the end of the year. Systems installation (power lines, traction power substations, signal houses and such) will advance here and elsewhere along the line as the civil work is completed.
Leading the pack by years, SouthWest Station’s new passenger waiting room and bus loop debuted on Monday — May Day — to become the first facility of the nearly $3 billion project to serve public transit users.
The temporary station will soon be removed. Metro Green Line Extension outreach coordinator James Mockovciak told a virtual town hall meeting on April 19 that construction of the station’s parking ramp entries and turnarounds will be built in its place. But first, 437 pilings will be driven into the ground for foundation stability.
An escorted walking tour of SouthWest Station and other SWLRT construction sites will be conducted in May. Click here for more information.
Last year, the Minnesota State Legislature commissioned The Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) to review and evaluate the Southwest Light Rail project.
The special review, “Southwest Light Rail Transit: Project Budget and Timeline,” was issued last September. The backgrounder provides a detailed chronology of Southwest Light Rail beginning in the 1980s when Hennepin County was the project’s lead agency. The review also includes the project’s hand-off to the Met Council in 2012 and describes the project’s budgets, change orders and delays through to March 2022.
Click here, then scroll to Page 39 for the timeline.
“Southwest Light Rail Transit Construction: Metropolitan Council Decision Making,” issued on March 15, is the first of two OLA evaluations of the SWLRT project. The evaluation also makes recommendations for the management of future large transit projects.
The second evaluation will focus on the Met Council’s oversight of project general contractor Lunda/McCrossan Joint Venture and systems general contractor Aldrich Parsons Joint Venture.
The OLA audit was prompted by Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls). Their District 61 constituents include activist voters and groups who began opposing building the line through the Kenilworth Corridor during and after the route selection process. The Lake and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, for example, had its 2014 environmental lawsuit ultimately dismissed by the 8th Circuit, U.S. District Court of Appeals in 2019.
More recently, undetected buried cobbles and unstable soils required additional very expensive construction techniques and time-consuming delays. In February 2022, work was halted on the Kenilworth tunnel when residents of the Cedar Isles Condominium reported structural cracks they suspected were caused by adjacent tunnel construction. A few weeks later, their parking garage was flooded by a broken water main.
A forensic engineering probe found that the residential high-rise structure was safe. The condo’s 1980s conversion from old grain silos had likely exacerbated cracks formed when the structures held wheat and corn.
Town Center Station
In January 2022, the Met Council reported that the changes needed to complete the SWLRT line in 2027 would cost an additional $450 to $550 million, raising the estimated total projected cost from $2.20 billion to around $2.74 billion.
The Met Council and the audit agree that the re-inclusion of Eden Prairie’s Town Center Station to the project, the Kenilworth Tunnel and a freight rail/LRT safety wall in Minneapolis are the most expensive adds to the entire project.
In July 2015, during Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, the station had been deferred for future construction as part of a major cost reduction measure. Those cuts also included eliminating 1.3 miles of trackage to a planned western terminus station on Technology Drive a bit west of Mitchell Road.
Town Center Station’s high rank surprised Eden Prairie Mayor Ron Case. “It’s frustrating to see in newspapers and documents that Town Center Station is figured into the cost overruns,” he told EPLN on March 20. “It’s not in the same ballpark.”
The $11.4 million Town Center Station required only $4.1 million from the light rail project’s contingency fund. City of EP records show that $7.3 million of the funding came from a $6,141,560 federal Congestion Management and Air Quality Grant and a $1,191,449 local match from the City of Eden Prairie. The rationale was to get federal funding, get the station built and beat inflation. The station is adjacent to Bowlero in a rapidly developing residential and commercial area. It is designed for easy pedestrian access and for car, van, and bus drop-offs and pick-ups.
The Met Council explained that the re-inclusion of the station (after the federal grant and the city’s contribution) happened too late in the design process to be included in the SWLRT plans that contractors needed to consider in calculating their bids.
Town Center Station’s budget-busting rep cued some broadcast sass. KSTP-TV’s Tom Hauser, for example, held up the March report at the snow-crusted station for his on-camera stand-upper, saying, “It was originally in the project, then it was out of the project and then it was put back in.”
By contrast, the mile-long extension of a concrete safety barrier in Minneapolis between BNSF freight trains and LRT trains has cost $82.6 million. And the Kenilworth tunnel, with a stretch of expensive secant wall piling to seal off water, stabilize soil conditions and protect the Cedar Isles high rise, will cost an additional $38.9 million or more. Kenilworth Tunnel construction issues and change orders have been cited by the Met Council as the big reason for delays.
It’s not pocket change
The March 15 evaluation holds that the Metropolitan Council had “obligated funds” for Southwest Light Rail it had not yet acquired and that it did not have a plan for a funding fail. The OLA also claims the Met Council “was not fully transparent about project costs and delays.”
In an official response (included in the March 15 report), Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle disagreed. “The auditor’s report,” he writes, … “minimizes the Met Council’s transparency and accountability to our funding partners. … Decision making is well documented within grant agreements and board actions and is practiced through regular decision meetings by embedded partner representatives in daily project activities.”
Negotiations regarding the re-sequencing and budgeting of change orders for billion-dollar construction projects involve highly specialized and experienced teams of designers, engineers, construction managers, legal advisors and bean counters who need time to work it out.
The Legislative Auditor reports can read like they were assembled in an ivy-covered Capitol Hill redoubt by a well-intentioned agency that may not know the difference between a backhoe and a bulldozer or appreciate the intense competition of garnering a huge federal transportation grant. But OLA, with the open cooperation of the Met Council, has usefully organized lots of information and data, conducted interviews and reviewed hearing and meeting minutes and such from the public record.
The new projected cost of SWLRT will be about 38 percent higher than the projected cost at the beginning of construction. However, on a cost-per-mile basis, the project is comparable to light rail projects in Houston, Charlotte, Dallas, Phoenix, Portland and, in the Twin Cities, the Blue (Hiawatha) and Green (Central Corridor) Lines.
The Met Council’s response
The Metropolitan Council generally agrees with the OLA’s analysis on project scheduling and delays. But Chair Zelle points out that the project and Lunda/McCrossan Joint Venture had agreed to a dispute resolution process and were settling differences before the audit.
The Met Council also agrees with OLA that the entity responsible for building large public transit projects should also be responsible for providing some of their funds.
The Met Council is the lead fundraiser for SWLRT, not the project’s lead funder. The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, Hennepin County and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority are the project’s chief funders. Smaller bundles from the state, five partner cities and the former Counties Transit Improvement Board have contributed. Visit pages 5-7 of the September Special Review.
EPLN has learned that $100 million will become available to SWLRT this summer from federal COVID-19 relief funds that were not assigned to other Metro Transit projects. Another $11 million is expected later this year. This would spark a $100 million match from Hennepin County.
That leaves another $250 million to complete the project.
The Met Council and its partner cities point out that the coming of SWLRT has driven over $1.8 billion in permitted or completed developments, as well as another $760.2 million in planned developments that include housing, businesses, institutions, improved local streets, intersections, sidewalks, and regional trails.
These investments are not the kind that are sparked by a new bus route.
Appreciation for the line’s suburban progress seems to be left to the project’s three community outreach coordinators, advisory committees, and Green Line Extension updates. The OLA reports on the project have enabled legislative critics of SWLRT to pose as champions of accountability.
- Sen. Scott Dibble (D-Mpls) on WCCO-TV News: “The report was disappointing but not surprising. There’s this culture of indifference this lack of accountability.”
- Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) said in September, “The Met Council, entirely appointed by the governor, has horribly mismanaged this project.”
- Sen. John Jasinski (R-Faribault) said in March, “Southwest Light Rail is a boondoggle of historic proportions.”
- Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South Saint Paul), chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Commission, said in MinnPost, “It seems that nobody’s at fault, or everybody’s at fault.”
Counterpoints from the prairie (mostly)
- Mayor Ron Case, speaking from Eden Prairie’s experience with SWLRT, said, “I thought communication was excellent. They took pains to meet with the five city mayors regularly, maybe quarterly.” Case added that the city had expressed frustration from time to time, but project staff tried to be clear about cost overruns, treated the city with respect, and provided sensible answers.
- Nancy Tyra-Lukens, the former Eden Prairie mayor and transit advocate, served on SWLRT advisory committees during Hennepin County and Met Council turns as the project’s lead agency. Tyra Lukens was traveling when the OLA’s March report was released, but did read MinnPost and StarTribune coverage. She shared her perspectives via a March 16 email: “My impression was that both [SWLRT committees] worked very hard to make sure there was ample opportunity for public comment and that committee members were kept abreast of the proceedings on construction plans and construction, once that was underway. To me, both organizations bent over backwards to gain public comment, document those comments and address concerns. Hence the slow pace on SWLRT.”
- The office of Hennepin County Board Chair Irene Fernando emailed a March 22 statement to EPLN. Fernando commented that the county appreciates the audit and deems transit to be important for equitable and thriving communities. The need for a world-class light rail system explains why Hennepin County invested more than $1 billion into SWLRT. Fernando also noted the county is “committed to transparency and accountability on all projects, especially those of this scale. Our public deserves to know how their dollars are being stewarded in service to their vision. … The county looks forward to working with partners at every level to complete the project.”
- Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn (DFL-Eden Prairie) responded in a March 23 email: “Most people say that the Green Line extension ‘ends’ in Eden Prairie, but I prefer to say that it begins here. I know many people and businesses in the district who are eager to have access to it – and many who have concerns about safety. I will echo my colleagues: I am frustrated to see the project hitting additional bumps in the proverbial road, but the audit was critical in determining the challenges so next steps can be taken to resolve the issues.”
- Sen. Steve Cwodzinski (DFL-Eden Prairie) replied via email on March 19: “I’m deeply troubled by the report’s findings, from withholding information about costs and delays to a complete lack of transparency and accountability to the public. Like all bodies that serve the public, the Met Council must be held accountable for its actions.” Cwodzinski agrees that the Legislature should be informed about Met Council project overrun costs and delays and that the Met Council should clearly state the level of uncertainty in its estimates of future costs.
“I talk about building an informed citizenship all the time as chair of the Education Policy Committee,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, at SouthWest Station on May Day
From inside the new bus passenger lobby at SouthWest Station, Al Halaas looks through a quarter acre of glass wall for the 6:45 a.m. express from Chaska to the University of Minnesota. A gleaming black bus with bold, spring-green logos and striping is on time. He walks outside into a brisk, clear May Day wind. Passengers follow.
As SouthWest Transit’s general manager of drivers, Halaas greets them and answers questions about the station’s debut morning.
Halass shared a thought with EPLN about the new digs.
“You know it’s very, very nice,” he said. “I’m really impressed with the way it turned out. … It will be a while before the trains start rolling.”
Ten feet away, on the other side of a chain link fence, construction workers fitted with hard hats were prepping for their work day at the station. While they picked up tools, the very first public transit users to be served by this nearly $3 billion project were boarding buses in Eden Prairie.
Click here to watch a video from the station’s first day in service.
Editor’s note: Former Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra Lukens, who is quoted in this story, served on the Southwest Transit Commission and is Chair of the EPLN Board of Directors. Writer Jeff Strate is also a member of the EPLN Board and served on the Community Advisory Committee of the SWLRT project.
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