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Minnesota Senate unanimously approves light rail audit

March 14, 2022 GMT

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Senate voted unanimously Monday to approve an audit of a more than $2 billion light rail line that’s been marred by delays and huge cost overruns since the transit project broke ground in 2019.

The bill allocates $200,000 to the Legislative Auditor’s office to conduct a special review of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project, which is shaping up as one of the most expensive public works projects in state history. The audit will include evaluations of project costs and overruns, changes to the project schedule, the qualifications of project management staff and quality of construction, among other criteria.

It also requires the Metropolitan Council to provide project updates to lawmakers every six months and notify lawmakers immediately if the project costs go 5% over budget more than they already are.

“What’s occurred here, in my mind, is just literally criminal as to how badly the taxpayers — be they federal or state or county taxpayers — how badly they are being treated by the Met Council on this project,” Republican Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, said on the floor Monday. “They’ve gone too far to stop and it’s too expensive to go ahead. What are they going to do? Keep wasting taxpayer money.”

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The 14.5-mile Green Line extension, which is about 60% completed, will connect downtown Minneapolis with southwestern suburbs that include St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Eden Prairie. The project is now estimated to cost $2.75 billion and will be passenger-ready by 2027, which is hundreds of millions more expensive and four years later than originally planned.

The increased costs and delays are due to issues with construction of the tracks, including in a narrow corridor between two Minneapolis lakes, where there have been serious groundwater and soil issues, and a condominium complex has sustained damage blamed on the project.

Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble, of Minneapolis, the author of the bill, said he and House Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein asked legislative auditors last summer to conduct a preliminary review of the project last summer.

A memo from auditors in October outlined a “prolonged and significant” difference in opinion between the Met Council and a third-party contractor on construction issues.

The Minnesota House passed the bill last week 129-1. Minor changes in the Senate version passed Monday require final approval by the House.

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Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.