'Boondoggle of historic proportions:' Calls grow for Southwest Light Rail audit

A bipartisan and growing list of state lawmakers are calling for an audit of Southwest Light Rail after the project's troubles pushed its estimated cost to $2.75 billion and its opening date to 2027.

Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Newman said Thursday that the Senate will vote to audit the project. Democratic House Transportation Chairman Frank Hornstein and state Sen. Scott Dibble, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation committee, have been seeking an audit for months.

"Southwest Light Rail is a boondoggle of historic proportions. Words barely capture what a monumental disaster it has been," Newman, R-Hutchinson, said in an emailed statement. "We really have no idea what the final price tag will look like because they can’t, or won’t, tell us."

A day earlier, the Metropolitan Council's appointed members voted unanimously to authorize a $210 million settlement with the project's construction contractor, Lunda McCrossan, in which Met Council will take blame for most of the cost overruns and delays.

The settlement will exhaust the $2.2 billion already committed to Southwest Light Rail. An additional $450 million to $550 will be needed to finish the project, Met Council officials say.

Met Council officials are working with the federal government and Hennepin County -- the two main funders of Southwest Light Rail -- to move the project forward, said Terri Dresen, a spokeswoman for the agency.

A full audit could take one year to finish because of the rail line's construction is so complicated, said Joel Alter, director of special reviews for the Minnesota Office of Legislative Auditor.

"The question is, would it have any effect on this project? Or would it be of more value as we look toward future projects that the Met Council is embarking on?" Alter told lawmakers during a Wednesday hearing.

A more limited inquiry conducted by Alter last summer revealed behind-the-scenes fighting between Met Council and its third-party validator, AECOM, which had raised concerns that Lunda McCrossan was overcharging Met Council for substandard work. Met Council called AECOM's assertions "innuendos."

The legislative session starts Monday. Newman said he would use his committee to quickly bring up Dibble's bill authorizing an audit.