Behind schedule and millions over budget, House approves audit of Twin Cities light rail project
The project has come under scrutiny after officials said it would take more than three years longer and cost up to $750 million more than originally planned.
ST. PAUL — A light rail construction project in the Twin Cities that could end up $750 million over budget and is over three years behind schedule is one step closer to a full audit after the Minnesota House approved funding for a special review of the project.
Lawmakers of both parties in the House and Senate have been calling for an audit of the project to expand a light rail line in the southwestern metro, which has had a pattern of increasing costs and delays since breaking ground in 2019 at an original expected cost of $2 billion.
T he Metropolitan Council said the expansion could wind up costing $750 million more than its originally projected budget of $2 billion dollars. It was supposed to open in 2023 but now won't open until 2027. Rep. Frank Hornstein, who is carrying the audit bill in the House, and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis Democrats, started pushing for a special review last summer after the council sought an additional $200 million in funding.
“At that time myself and Sen. Dibble grew very concerned about not only the size of that particular cost overrun but a pattern of increased costs and delay to this project,” Hornstein told fellow representatives on the House floor Thursday, March 3, ahead of a vote to approve the audit. “We felt the situation had become serious enough that it really merited what’s called a special review.”
After the lawmakers reached out to the legislative auditor about a review last summer, costs continued to grow due to construction challenges and a dispute with a contractor. The legislative auditor in October issued a memo that raised further concerns to the point that Hornstein and other lawmakers felt it necessary to conduct a full audit of the project.
Costs then only continued to grow, with the council in January announcing it would need an additional $450-550 million to finish the project.
The Southwest light rail project is an extension of the existing Green Line that connects downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 14.5 miles of new track would connect downtown Minneapolis to the suburb of Eden Prairie, with stations in St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Minnetonka along the route.
The Metropolitan Council is the lead agency in the project and is working with local, federal and state agencies on the project. Funding primarily comes from federal and county sources, with the state contributing just $30 million to the project, according to the Office of the Legislative Auditor.
The legislative auditor is already looking into the project and the bill that passed the house nearly unanimously Thursday night will provide an additional $200,000 for the special review. The Senate plans to take up a similar bill, and it has the support of transportation Chair Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. Gov. Tim Walz also supports an audit.
GOP push to stop project
Republican representatives attempted to introduce amendments to pause or even end the light rail project altogether during nearly three hours of floor debate on the audit bill Thursday night. Some argued that the rail project shouldn’t get more funding before the audit determines what’s causing its cost and timeline to balloon. Others, such as Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the project should be scrapped altogether, calling it a “multi-billion dollar boondoggle.”
Rep. Cheryl Youakim, R-Hopkins, shot back at Republican calls to pause or end the project, pointing out that it is more than halfway complete. Ending the project completely could entail owing the federal government money, removing already-built portions of the line, and risking lawsuits over broken contracts for its construction, she said.
The audit ultimately passed 129-1, with Shakopee Republican Rep. Erik Mortensen the lone no vote.