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Minnesota House Approves Bill To Audit Southwest Light Rail Project Beset By Problems

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- A probe into rising costs and major delays associated with Southwest Light Rail project is likely on the horizon, after the Minnesota House approved an audit on Thursday with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The proposal asks the Office of the Legislative Auditor to evaluate decisions of the Met Council overseeing this project; identify all changes to the schedule of construction; determine financial impacts if additional funding is needed; perform a cost-benefit analysis and more. A review from the auditor is already underway, but this bill seeks a more exhaustive investigation and earmarks $200,000 to fund it.

The bill, which requests special review and program evaluation, passed on a 129-1 vote. Similar legislation in the Senate is moving forward and could get a vote as early as next week.

"We can work together on this," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who is leading the effort in the House. "This is about transparency and accountability. We need to get to the bottom of what's causing this."

Southwest Light Rail
(credit: CBS)

The transit extension, which would extend the green line to connect Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, has come under fire for cost overruns and years-long delays, leaving neighbors and lawmakers alike frustrated.

By the time it's completed, it could cost $2.75 billion and it won't be in operation until 2027, transit officials said recently. That's hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

In a statement to WCCO, the Met Council said it supports the audit and is open to discussions about improvement. A manager for the project previously said the complexity of construction and changing construction plans along some parts of the transit line contributed to budget increases and shifting timelines.

"The work of the METRO Green Line Extension is too critical to not have a transparent dialogue addressing the complexities of this project," a spokesman said by email. "It's a vital component of the comprehensive transit system intended to serve the metro area for years to come."

Some House Republicans proposed additions that would freeze funding for the line or halt construction altogether, but they didn't pass. The legislation also requires status updates from the Met Council to the legislature every six months and additional notification if the total project cost is anticipated to increase by 5% or more going forward.

"This is the biggest waste of money that I have ever seen in my lifetime," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "And we aren't even getting warmed up with how much money this thing is going to waste. I guarantee you this thing will overrun the overrun of the overrun of the overrun."

The Cedar Isles Dean Neighborhood Association recently passed a resolution supporting this move by lawmakers, as some residents grapple with troubles from construction along the Kenilworth corridor.

Mary Pattock, a member of the association, cheered the legislature considering an audit. She hopes the probe will prompt better judgement and management over the project, and she would like to see the structure of the Met Council change so members are directly accountable to the public. Under current law, they are named to their positions by the governor.

"How did it happen that this project, this huge project, has gone so amok," she said. "I would say it's because there is no one watching the cash register. There's no way the taxpayers and voters can have an influence over the Met Council because they are unelected."

A bill in the Senate could come up for a vote as early as next week. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who is a leading critic of the handling of the Southwest Light Rail, also introduced a bill to move authority over the project from the Met Council to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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