Audit says Met Council failed to manage rising costs of Southwest LRT project

The Metropolitan Council is taking heat once again for its management of the Southwest Light Rail Train project. A new audit finds the agency failed to hold contractors accountable for rising costs, and the audit questions the Met Council's oversight.

The chair of the Met Council vigorously defended his agency on Wednesday, saying their oversight and management are sound. He argues that overruns and delays are part and parcel of projects that are this massive. But some DFL lawmakers who asked for this audit are hoping for a Met Council overhaul with members who are elected – not appointed.

"Not surprised, but disappointed and frankly shocked," said Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis).

Dibble, along with Representative Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), are the two DFLers who requested this latest audit of Southwest Light Rail, to uncover why there were delays and why the costs escalated.

"It’s jaw-dropping. This lack of enforcement of their own contracts is really very, very problematic," stated Hornstein.

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The answer they got, they say, is lax oversight by the Metropolitan Council.

"The contract simply hasn’t been managed, the construction project hasn’t been managed well," Dibble commented.

The 51-page report from the Legislative Auditor found one of the biggest problems in change orders – alterations in construction that come from unforeseen problems that added hundreds of millions of dollars. A major one was the complexities of the Kenilworth Tunnel Corridor, which took far more time and money.

But in a three-hour presentation to lawmakers, the auditors said not all changes were scrutinized. The contractor sometimes paid for changes without proof they actually spent the money. The Met Council pushed back on some costs but not all.

"The tools they had, as Mr Kirchner said, were withholding money or deducting funds, and they were very reluctant to do so in fear of potential litigation or the contractor walking away," explained Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall

The Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle defended their oversight as robust and argued the original price tag was never realistic.

"This actual project is costing more because it was always going to cost more. It was under-budgeted," declared Zelle.