Mar 16, 2023 - News

Met Council scrutinized for Southwest LRT costs and transparency

Photo: Mark Vancleave/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The Metropolitan Council is getting fresh scrutiny after an audit criticized the organization's handling and transparency of the Southwest LRT project.

Why it matters: The report and its recommendations set the stage for a debate about the future of the Met Council, which is the region's planning agency.

Catch up fast: Five years ago, the Southwest LRT was supposed to be a $2 billion line between Eden Prairie and downtown Minneapolis that began service in 2023. It's now a $2.76 billion project that won't begin service until at least 2027.

What they found: The Office of the Legislative Auditor said that as the Met Council realized the project was going to cost more than was budgeted, it kept moving forward even though it didn’t have the money committed from the entities footing the bill, like Hennepin County and the state.

  • "The Metropolitan Council has very little of its own money in this project," said OLA project manager David Kirchner. "It was making those decisions essentially with the money of other entities, not with its own money."

The report also knocked the Met Council for waiting months to tell the public and legislature about a two-year delay.

The other side: Met Council chair Charlie Zelle told lawmakers during a hearing yesterday that much of the cost overrun was due to unanticipated soil issues along the Kenilworth corridor near the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes.

  • He also disagreed that the council has not been transparent, noting that local and state officials were embedded in the project.

What's ahead: Auditors recommended future light rail projects be managed by an entity with its own money at stake.

Between the lines: The report echoed what Republicans in the legislature have been saying for years: that the Met Council is spending taxpayer money without accountability. The difference now is that Democrats are on board with a shakeup.

  • Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Frank Hornstein, both chairs of their bodies' transportation committees, have proposed bills to make the Met Council an elected body (its 17-member board is currently appointed by the governor).

What to watch: Dibble said at a hearing Wednesday that the changes need to happen this session.

  • "We need reform. We need accountability [and] transparency," he said.
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