Southwest Light Rail may be $550 million short, will not open until 2027

Southwest Light Rail will not open until 2027 and carry a final cost around $2.75 billion, Metropolitan Council officials said Wednesday, ending months of speculation about the impact of ballooning cost overruns and delays.

The new projected opening date is four years behind the original schedule. Almost a decade will have elapsed between the ceremonial groundbreaking and the time a passenger boards the 14.5-mile line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, the largest public works project in state history.

Met Council's appointed members voted unanimously Wednesday evening to authorize a $210 million settlement with the prime construction contractor, paving the way for work along the line to continue. Met Council has been fighting with the contractor, Lunda McCrossan, over who is responsible for the overruns.

The settlement will exhaust the $2.2 billion previously authorized for the project, known officially as the Green Line Extension. It will likely require $450 million to $550 million to finish systems work, testing and to start revenue service, said Nick Thompson, Metro Transit's deputy general manager. He did not say where the money would come from.

"Stopping this project is not an option," Thompson told Met Council members before the vote. "You do not just walk away from a project that is 60 percent completed without costs, without litigation."

Thompson and Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said the settlement with Lunda McCrossan was the best option to getting construction on track. Without it, work would have continued for years beyond 2027, Thompson said.

Civil construction, which was originally expected to finish this fall, will not wrap up until June 2025. The half-mile Kenilworth tunnel in Minneapolis, which has caused the most construction headaches and cost overruns, will be the last part of the rail line to be completed.

Other add-ons, including the Eden Prairie Town Center station and a corridor protection wall separating the light rail tracks from a BNSF freight line in Minneapolis, are also driving the overruns.

The project's original budget was $2 billion. Met Council tapped a $200 million contingency fund from Hennepin County last summer as delays mounted.

The troubled project is leading to new calls for accountability against Met Council. Wednesday, a growing list of Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for an audit of Southwest Light Rail.

Council officials received a chilly welcome as they testified in front of the Legislative Commission on Metro Government, with lawmakers questioning a lack of transparency of Wednesday evening's Met Council vote.

"We’re already talking about $200 million (for the settlement) and you’re not willing to say how much more the new overruns will be," said state Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville. "To the taxpayer, this is very hard to understand."

Two Minneapolis Democrats, state Sen. Scott Dibble and House Transportation Chairman Frank Hornstein, have said they will offer legislation requiring an audit of the rail project. A more limited inquiry from the Office of Legislative Auditor in 2021 revealed infighting between Met Council and its third-party validator, which had raised concerns that Lunda McCrossan was overcharging the council and doing substandard work.

Joel Alter, the director of special reviews for the Legislative Auditor's office, said an investigation could take a year to complete because of the project's complexity.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers -- including Dibble, Hornstein, and suburban Republicans -- support legislation changing Met Council's governance structure so that its members are elected.

Gov. Tim Walz, who appoints the members under the current system, said he was open to the change.

"If that brings more accountability, and that's a decision we come to, I'm certainly willing to have that conversation," Walz, a Democrat in his first term, told reporters.