Expensive tunnel to blame in Southwest Light Rail Transit delays and cost overruns
A decision in the early 2010s to put part of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project underground is the likely inflection point where financial shortfalls and construction delays began to weigh on the project.
A tunnel wedged between a condominium tower and a village of townhouses is now the leading cause of cost overruns that punched a half-billion-dollar hole in the budget. Construction problems and completion delays may also lie at the foot of the tunnel, which Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle Doubled “the gnarliest segment of this whole very complicated project.”
But for the tunnel, the SWLRT project might have already been delivered, almost on time and almost on budget. But for the tunnel, paying passengers could borrow wagons already purchased. But for the tunnel, angry lawmakers from both parties might not expect more reports from the Office of the Legislative Auditor.
The cursed part of the current $2.74 billion extension of the current green line is a tunnel which is just 2,870 feet of the 14.5-mile route between Target Field and Eden Prairie.
The decision to build a tunnel under the corridor between Cedar Lake and Lac des Iles can now be considered water under the bridge – an irreversible decision on the project 64% complete. But it is expected to feature prominently in subsequent audit reports to be released next year, as the scrutiny shifts from establishing the facts of the blown budget and missed schedule to questions of know why and who.
During a meeting of the Legislative Audit Commission on September 8, House Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein noticed something about the first report that troubled him but did not surprise him. In the development of the various environmental and technical studies that preceded the final decision on the route, the legislative auditor showed a dramatic change in direction between 2009 and early 2014.
The Minneapolis DFLer noted how all studies prior to 2012 strongly supported the option known as relocation, describing moving existing freight lines out of the corridor to allow light rail and a bike path to use surface space. After 2012, the studies all pointed to an option known as colocation which puts all modes in the same space with light rail running below the surface as a pinch point at the southern end of the corridor. The difference arose because the City of St. Louis Park and the Twin Cities and Western Railroad opposed moving the freight lines.
“It seems to me…it was really a political decision and not a technical one,” Hornstein said. Even a study by an independent consultant found that the other plan, one that avoided the need for a tunnel, was feasible.
“We knew this was happening,” Hornstein said, “but for presenting it in this chronological order and you could see so clearly the advocacy of the railroad and the city of St. Louis Park to move this to Kenilworth despite many previously acknowledged technical issues.
“It’s coming home now because it was planned for the 2010-2012 period,” he said. Hornstein, who preferred a route that used the Nicollet Mall and the Greenway rather than the existing rail line, said he was confident the project would be finished by now if relocation had been the choice.
The tunnel is squeezed into a narrow corridor in order to accommodate three transport systems – a light rail in the tunnel and a freight train and a popular pedestrian/bicycle track on the surface. A plan to drive steel sheets into the ground to support the tunnel walls ran into trouble when rocks were uncovered during construction. Change construction methods more recently caused a $500 million cost overrun and a three-year delay, pushing the opening to 2027.
What if no tunnel was necessary? This is where the project was headed in the early 2010s. Each study pointed the process towards what was called “relocation” to describe the need to move a freight rail line run by Twin Cities and Western out of the Kenilworth corridor which was owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. Completed in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, six different studies concluded that relocation – not roommate – was the way to go.
“A tunnel through the Kenilworth Corridor to enable co-location would cost significantly more than other available alternatives, produce unpredictable environmental impacts; and invite ongoing maintenance, safety and security issues,” is how the auditor summed up a study by RL Banks & Associates in 2010.
The draft environmental impact statement for the county and the Federal Transit Administration in 2012 concluded that – again as summarized by the audit – the colocation alternative did not meet the purpose and need of the project, required a complex, high-impact construction stage, and was not a feasible alternative due to the associated environmental impacts.
So what happened? According to the auditor’s review, comments received as part of the draft EIS process from St. Louis Park and the railroad opposed the relocation of freight service. These are not just any interested parties. State law gave each municipality a virtual veto over the project unless their wishes were met. And federal law gives the railroads extraordinary power over state and local governments. There was also a submission from the US Army Corps of Engineers questioning the impact of relocation on waterways.
A series of new studies commissioned by the Met Council found that co-location, including a tunnel, was feasible and in October 2013 the Met Council adopted the co-location option as the route of choice. The only significant change was to go from two tunnels to one at the southern end of the corridor. Trains would run on the surface at the north end and over the Kenilworth Canal before moving below the surface.
The Legislative Auditor attributed three factors to the delays and increased costs of the project:
- Uncertainty on the final location of rail freight
- The construction of the tunnel
- The BNSF’s forced construction of a concrete separation wall to separate freight and light rail tracks
Two of the three could have been avoided with a relocation rather than a roommate.
The issue was raised in later lawsuits brought by a coalition called the Lakes and Parks Alliance to challenge the process. The lawsuit claimed that contrary to state law, the Met Council had already chosen a route rather than letting the environmental review guide that decision.
US District Court Judge John Tunheim ruled against the alliance in 2018, saying the council approached but did not cross the line of predetermination of the route before environmental studies. He even expressed some sympathy for the Met Council attempting to complete a project when so many entities had veto power over decisions, which he noted “can significantly interfere with the goals of a appropriate regional planning process that appropriately takes into account the environmental impact of development. .”
“For the council, walking this tightrope is difficult,” Tunheim wrote. “The court’s task here, however, is not to review the wisdom of the council’s decisions and agreements, but rather to limit itself to deciding whether the council violated federal law.”
This is not the case, he concluded.
“In the face of financial pressures and the fact that the project did not obtain municipal consent, council was willing to modify the proposed route to advance its funding and municipal consent goals,” Tunheim wrote. “As far as funding goes, the council has changed the route, in part, due to budgetary pressures.”
At the time of Tunheim’s decision, the project had an estimated cost of $1.858 billion and was expected to be completed in 2023. It is now $2.74 billion with completion expected in 2027.
Calling the tunnel “the gnarliest segment” at the end of last year, Zelle said: “IIt’s not just the cramped and cramped hallway, but the ground conditions and construction practices of working during working hours so as not to disrupt the neighborhood have been really difficult. And I think that’s part of the reason for the delay, and time is money. So it is more expensive and more time consuming.