Budget house

Overdue and millions over budget, House approves audit of Twin Cities light rail project – Reuters

ST. PAUL — A Twin Cities light rail construction project that could be $750 million over budget and more than three years behind schedule is one step closer to a full audit after the Minnesota House approved the funding for a special review of the project.

Lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have called for an audit of the Southwest Metro light rail expansion project, which has seen a trend of rising costs and delays since launching in 2019 at an initial projected cost of $2 billion.

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The metropolitan council said the expansion could cost an additional $750 million

than its originally planned budget of $2 billion. It was supposed to open in 2023, but won’t open again until 2027. Representative Frank Hornstein, who is bringing the audit bill to the House, and Senator Scott Dibble, both Democrats from Minneapolis, have started making pushed for a special review last summer after the council requested additional funding of $200 million.

“At that time, myself and Senator Dibble became very concerned not only about the magnitude of this particular cost overrun, but also about a trend of increasing costs and delays to this project,” Hornstein told fellow House Representatives Thursday, March 3, ahead of a vote to approve the audit. “We felt that the situation had become serious enough to merit what is called a special examination.”

After lawmakers contacted the legislative auditor about a review last summer, costs continued to rise due to construction issues and a dispute with a contractor. The Legislative Auditor in October issued a memo that raised further concerns to the point that Hornstein and other lawmakers felt it necessary to conduct a full audit of the project.

The costs then continued to increase,

with the board in January announcing

it would need an additional $450-550 million to complete the project.

The Southwest Light Rail project is an extension of the existing Green Line that connects downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 14.5 miles of new track would connect downtown Minneapolis to suburban Eden Prairie, with stations in St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka along the route.

The Metropolitan Council is the project’s lead agency and is working with local, federal, and state agencies on the project. Funding comes primarily from federal and county sources, with the state contributing only $30 million to the project, according to the Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The legislative auditor is already studying the bill and the bill that was passed almost unanimously on Thursday evening provides an additional $200,000 for the special examination. The Senate plans to pass a similar bill, and it has the support of Transportation Chairman Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. Governor Tim Walz also supports an audit.

Republican Representatives tried to introduce amendments to suspend or even end the light rail project during nearly three hours of floor debate on the audit bill Thursday night. Some have argued that the rail project should not get more funding until the audit determines what is driving its cost and schedule skyrocketing. Others, like R-Crown Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, have said the project should be scrapped altogether, calling it a “multi-billion dollar boondoggle”.

Rep. Cheryl Youakim, R-Hopkins, fired back at Republican calls to pause or end the project, pointing out that it’s more than halfway done. Ending the project altogether could mean owing money to the federal government, removing already-built parts of the line and risking breach of contract lawsuits for its construction, she said.

The audit eventually passed 129-1, with Republican Rep. Shakopee Erik Mortensen the only no.