Charlie Zelle

Minnesotans are right to expect accountability and transparency from their public institutions. While this open approach to government is critical to ensuring that public programs and projects are run and managed efficiently, it is also important to ensure accountability and transparency because things do not always go as planned. That is currently the situation on the METRO Green Line Extension Light Rail Transit project, formerly known as Southwest Light Rail.

In short, the project is delayed by about four years, and its final price tag could be as high as $2.75 billion. The Met Council is managing the project and, as chair of the Met Council, the buck stops with me. We are renegotiating the schedule and costs with our prime contractor to create a realistic timeline to deliver the project.

The setbacks we’re facing are bitterly disappointing to me and everyone involved with this project. They will be the subject of vigorous public debate, and both critics and supporters of the METRO Green Line Extension will demand full accountability, transparency, and external reviews to ensure the project is truly on track.

I agree 100%. To begin that discussion I would like to offer this context.

This is the largest and most complex public works project in the state’s history. When complete it will connect the current METRO Green Line, which runs between downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis, to the region’s rapidly growing southwest suburbs, ending in Eden Prairie. Much of the project construction is on time and is now 60% complete.

First and foremost, the Kenilworth tunnel in Minneapolis is proving to be one of the biggest challenges to the project. Tunnels present a cost and schedule risk in large construction projects. The Council was required to make substantial changes to the design and construction of the Kenilworth tunnel due to the unforeseen conditions of unstable soil and rocks. These changes have resulted in most of the increased cost and schedule.

Cracks have been detected in a condominium complex adjacent to the Kenilworth Corridor tunnel construction. We have hired a world-class engineering firm to investigate the cause and have temporarily paused work on that portion of the project.

Another large cost driver is the construction of a $100 million crash wall that was required by the BNSF Railroad and added to the project after the construction contract was bid. Railroads have exceptional power to influence potential projects in their right of way. There would have been no project without the crash wall.

Finally, the addition of the final station in Eden Prairie required plan changes that have impacted the cost and construction schedule.

Even with these setbacks and time delays, the total project cost of the METRO Green Line extension is lower than most other LRT projects around the country.

Many critics are asking why the Met Council picked a route with so many potential problems. It is true that the Council grants the final approval of a route, but the actual role of choosing the specific route for a major transitway belongs to the local communities and counties that will be served. In this case the Council accepted the community and stakeholder determination of the best route led by Hennepin County.

The METRO Green Line Extension is a crucial part of the build-out of our region’s transit system. It will connect people to one of the most job-rich and fastest growing parts of the metro region, intersecting with the METRO Blue Line light rail transit and several bus rapid transit lines. When this system of local bus, bus rapid transit, and light rail is complete we will have connected 500,000 people, who do not have good bus service now, to a 30-minute commute to their job.

The METRO Green Line Extension and the rest of the system build-out is supported by the business community and the chambers of commerce in the communities the line will serve. It also has strong support from local elected officials and potential transit riders across the region. Developers have either started construction on or have issued permits for more than $2 billion in new development immediately adjacent to the line.

It is part of a major investment in our region’s future growth, connecting people to jobs, homes, shopping, and schools. This project that is designed to last for the next 50 years without the need for major rehabilitation or reconstruction, so we need to take the time to get the job done right.

Charlie Zelle is the chair of the Metropolitan Council, and is the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.