The Southwest Light Rail Transit project would extend the Metro Green Line 14.5 miles to Eden Prairie. Submitted image

County approves more funds for Southwest light rail

Members of the Hennepin County Board voted Thursday to increase the county’s funding commitment to the Southwest Light Rail Transit project by $204 million — and debated among themselves what might happen if they’re asked to up their contribution once again.

“The lift has gotten heavier, there’s no denying that,” said Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison, who voted with the 5-2 majority. Callison described the project, with all its potential benefits and looming risks, as “the most vexing problem” she has faced as a board member.

Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a staunch opponent of the project, voted against, and was joined by Commissioner Mike Opat, who said the growing price tag was evidence the state’s largest ever transportation project was “just plain poorly managed” by Met Council. Johnson also voted against a second measure to fund the project office through the end of August, a critical period for winning federal approvals.

The board’s action followed by one day the Metropolitan Council’s vote to increase the budget for the project, a 14.5-mile extension of the Metro Green Line, 7.8 percent to just over $2 billion. While the project is fully designed, there remain a number of risk factors that could drive the cost even higher, from delays caused by either of the two lawsuits against the project to the fluctuating price of copper, a major factor in the cost of a light-rail systems contract Met Council plans to award later this year.

As the project’s main local source of funding, Hennepin County is now committed to at least $780.5 million for SWLRT. And it is the only obvious place Met Council can turn for additional contributions.

Project leaders say they are on track to apply for a $928.8 million full-funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration this summer. That figure was locked-in when the project applied with FTA to enter the engineering phase in 2016. While the project leaders once counted on federal funds to cover 50 percent of project costs, the federal share is shrinking and will continue to diminish if costs continue to rise.

Callison said the county is “clearly building toward a decision point on this project,” possibly later this summer, when the cost outweighs the project’s potential rewards.

Noting the tight timeline for the project to complete federal risk and financial capacity assessments while also submitting its grant application — and, on the side, fighting for control of a key portion of the future light-rail corridor in a flurry of filings with the Surface Transportation Board — Commissioner Marion Greene said the Met Council was “playing a game of chicken” with the federal government that had backed Hennepin County into a corner.

“I feel that we are on thin ice,” Greene said, adding that she expected a briefing from project officials on the remaining risks by the end of August.

Greene also requested an update from the project on plans for a tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor. Residents of the Calhoun-Isles Condos recently presented findings from an engineering consultant that raise questions about how nearby light rail construction and operations might damage their building.

In exchange for its increased contribution — which is coming both form Hennepin County and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority — the county will exercise greater control over the project’s contingency funds.

Between the two of them, the county and railroad authority will control three of five votes on an executive control board that must approve all change orders exceeding $350,000. Half of the contingency funds will be held back, and any Met Council request to tap those funds will require a yes vote from a simple majority of the county board.