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Met Council and Hennepin County plan to close South West LRT budget gap

A plan to close the gaping budget gap for the $2.7 billion Southwest light rail line was rolled out on Monday, but the proposed injection of $211 million would still not be enough to complete the troubled project.

The metropolitan council’s transportation committee on Monday unanimously recommended transferring $111 million to the Southwest project, most of it from federal COVID-19 relief funds. This plan will have to be approved by the full council, which will build and maintain the line, in a vote scheduled for next week.

Meanwhile, Hennepin County Council is expected to vote Thursday on a measure to transfer an additional $100 million to Project Southwest, an extension of the Green Line that will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

But with currently insufficient project funding of $450-550 million, the Met Council would still need to find an additional $240-340 million to complete the job. And it’s unclear at this time where the extra money will come from.

“The Green Line Extension has been planned for many, many years and will be transformative not just for the towns along the extension and the county, but for the entire state,” said Molly Cummings, member of the Met Council.

“When we plan these things, we try to do our best and try to figure out funding for something that lasts for many years, with so many variables beyond our control,” she said.

The budget maneuvers would give the state’s most expensive public works project a much-needed financial boost, allowing construction of the 14.5-mile line to continue through 2024.

The Southwest Line is more than 60% complete, with some $1.8 billion spent to date, and is expected to enter service in 2027, at least nine years behind schedule.

Council officials said Monday they will continue to work with Hennepin County and others to fill the shortfall and look for ways to cut expenses.

“The reality is that we have a problem and we are doing our best to solve it,” Council member Kris Fredson said, noting that other transit projects built by the Met Council have arrived on schedule and under budget.

Most of the Met Council’s share, about $100 million, would come from its allocation of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplementary Appropriations Act of 2021 signed by President Donald Trump, money intended to support the nation’s transportation system in the wake of the pandemic in 2020. The remaining $11 million would come from other federal funds allocated to the council.

About $2 billion of the project is funded by the Federal Transit Administration and Hennepin County, with contributions from the former County Transit Improvement Board, the state, and cities along the line.

News of the additional funding comes as the state Legislative Auditor’s Office prepares to release the first part of its special examination of the project in February, with a second report expected in the spring. The investigation by the nonpartisan watchdog was sparked in 2021 by a series of cost overruns and a dwindling contingency fund to cover unexpected construction costs.

Many of the costly construction issues relate to a half-mile tunnel in the narrow Kenilworth Corridor in Minneapolis, and a $93 million crash barrier added at the end of the project to separate light rail and freight trains west of Target Field.

The Met Council originally planned to divert freight trains using the Kenilworth Corridor through St. Louis Park, leaving only light rail and a cycle and pedestrian path along the Corridor.

But City of St. Louis Park officials and Twin Cities & Western Railroad officials objected, and the Met Council had to change its plans. The result is that freight and light rail trains, as well as the cycle and pedestrian path, will share the narrow corridor together.

When the current alignment across the Kenilworth Corridor, including the tunnel, was chosen in 2014, the project price was $1.6 billion with an opening date of 2019.

Members of the Met Council on Monday defended the potential of the project despite costs and delays, noting that more than $1.6 billion in investment has already been made or planned along the South West Corridor.

“It will be an incredible asset to our children, their grandchildren and their children,” Cummings said.

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