Lawmakers advance Southwest Light Rail audit as delays mount

The message coming out of the state Capitol is clear: lawmakers in both parties have had enough of Southwest Light Rail's cost overruns and the excuses given by the agency in charge of the project.

Thursday the Senate Transportation committee advanced a bill to trigger an audit, and the committee's chairman said the House and Senate have agreed to fast-track the legislation. At the same time, a Minneapolis Democrat is proposing to strip the Metropolitan Council of the project and give it to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

The legislative moves come as construction came to a screeching halt on the half-mile Kenilworth Tunnel in Minneapolis after cracks appeared on several floors of a condo building nearby. The budget for the Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie line has ballooned to $2.75 billion and the opening date is now set for 2027, four years behind schedule. 

"We are very concerned about the Southwest Light Rail transit project," Legislative Auditor Judy Randall told the Senate Transportation committee at a hearing Thursday. She said her office has already started work in anticipation of an audit.

Senate Transportation Chair Scott Newman said quick passage of a bill would allow auditors to get a "jump-start" on the investigation before the legislative session ends in May.

All four legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz have endorsed an audit. 

"It is the right thing to do. The taxpayers are aghast. We have to have some level of accountability," said Senate President Dave Osmek, R-Mound.
Construction on the 14.5-mile line is 60 percent finished, project managers have said. But Met Council has not identified a funding source for up to $550 million needed to finish the project.

State Sen. Scott Dibble has filed legislation transferring power of the project to MnDOT, which would give the Legislature more oversight. Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has been a leading critic of Met Council's management.

The latest delay happened Jan. 27, the same day that Met Council announced the new project budget and timeline.

That day, residents of the Calhoun Isles condominiums near Cedar Lake in Minneapolis noticed cracks appearing on several floors and separation of the walls and ceiling. The building stands just feet away from where crews are building the Kenilworth Tunnel.

Met Council stopped tunnel construction as it started an investigation. There is no timeline for when work will restart, a project spokesman said.

For years, condo owners have warned that this would happen. While the residents were unsuccessful in getting the light rail line rerouted, Met Council has made several costly changes to construction methods in the narrow corridor next to the building.

The condo association has declined to make public statements until a board meeting scheduled for Tuesday.