Over-budget Southwest LRT gets vote of confidence from feds

The top U.S. transit official gave a vote of confidence to the Southwest Light Rail project this week but stopped short of endorsing more federal money for the over-budget, behind-schedule line.

"I am very comfortable with the work that Metro Transit and the Met Council are doing," Federal Transit Administrator Nuria Fernandez said during a tour of a construction site in Minneapolis. Southwest LRT is the largest public works project in Minnesota history.

The budget has grown to $2.2 billion because of a flood of costly change orders, forcing Southwest LRT to commit its final contingency fund. That means it will have to ask Hennepin County or the federal government if more money is required.

No one can say what the final cost will be, or how badly Southwest LRT will miss its original projected 2023 opening.

"People ask me every day, and I have the benefit of saying I don't know because I don't know," Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said.

Another change order

Wednesday, the Met Council unanimously approved $30 million for a retaining wall in the troublesome Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis -- the seventh multi-million dollar change order since March. The 500-foot wall, known as a secant wall, will protect a nearby condominium building and parking structure while crews dig a half-mile tunnel. The tunnel will carry light rail trains while freight trains pass above through the narrow corridor.

Earlier this year, the Council approved an $82 million change order for a crash protection wall near Bryn Mawr Meadows Park just north of Interstate 394 in Minneapolis. The wall will separate freight traffic from light rail trains in the area. Council members also signed off on change orders for contaminated soils, three additional years of equipment storage, project management support, and grout work in the Kenilworth Corridor.

This month, crews laid the first track on the half-built line. The track runs about one-third of a mile in downtown Hopkins and got a celebratory tweet from Southwest LRT's account.

But the progress on some parts of the 14-mile line contrast with problems elsewhere. Met Council officials say the project is now being "resequenced" -- meaning some construction work is being moved up while the change orders are pushing other tasks back.

'I think we should spend it'

Earlier this month, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners and Met Council committed the project's final $200 million contingency fund. Hennepin County is the main source of local funding. Neither panel had much public debate on the issue.

"Well, if Hennepin County wants us to have the money, I think we should spend it," Met Council Member Raymond Zeran said at an Aug. 9 Transportation committee meeting.

If the final contingency fund isn't enough, the Met Council will have to seek more money from Hennepin County or the Federal Transit Administration. Against that backdrop, FTA Administrator Fernandez deflected a question when asked if her agency would send more funds.

"The project is almost 50 percent construction in place and almost 100 percent of the contracts have been awarded," she told reporters. "In terms of any cost uncertainties in the future, those have been reduced significantly."