The Met Council will send light rail trains to Louisiana for necessary maintenance

Metro Transit is struggling to find ways to service its aging fleet of light rail vehicles, but a plan to ship trains from the Twin Cities to Louisiana for service has sparked heated debate.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Council awarded a $7.7 million contract to Florida-based RailcarCo., which will oversee rust mitigation and other upgrades for 16 Bombardier light rail vehicles. The company, which submitted its proposal almost a year ago, was the only bidder.

The 8-5 vote and related discussion was unusually tense for the board, which oversees Metro Transit. The decision came after the union representing light railroad mechanics insisted its members could do the work in Minnesota.

“Taxpayer labor and dollars are being shipped out of state when we could have done it here,” said Ryan Timlin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005, which represents the mechanics and others at Metro Transit.

But Brian Funk, interim chief operating officer of Metro Transit, said delaying the decision could “result in more damage, more cost and [a] compromised service life” for light rail vehicles.

The transit agency hopes each vehicle will stay in service for up to 40 years, but Minnesota’s harsh climate and frequent use of road salt mean maintenance is critically important as the undersides of trains rust. The Blue Line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America opened in 2004, so some of Metro Transit’s trains are at least 17 years old.

Shipping older light rail vehicles to Louisiana by rail will give Metro Transit’s unionized maintenance staff a head start on rust mitigation for 64 additional Siemens-built light rail cars that will have less corrosion, Funk said.

Metro Transit has known about the rust and corrosion problem for at least four years. ATU workers have already completed rust mitigation work on 11 vehicles, but work has been slowed while Metro Transit’s maintenance facility in Minneapolis is expanded to make room for the vehicles of the new South West light rail line. This work is almost complete.

It’s still unclear when Southwest, a $2.2 billion extension of the Green Line connecting Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, will begin service, but it will be after 2023.

Funk acknowledged that Metro Transit had not fully appreciated the extent of the rust corrosion problem. “We started late on this file,” he said.

He also said it has been difficult to hire employees to do the job, given the statewide labor shortage. Although there were 41 openings for maintenance workers through August, Metro Transit was only able to hire two people.

The union says the hiring process has been slowed because a qualification test given to potential light rail mechanics was halted while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates the bias test racial. However, the union and the transit agency have pledged to find another way to ensure new hires are qualified.

It will cost Metro Transit $40,000 to ship each vehicle by rail to Louisiana. The contract with RailcarCo. could ultimately total $12 million, to be funded by federal and local sources.

“It’s outsourcing, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Council member Kris Fredson said. “We hear from our employees telling us that they believe they can do the job and they want to do the job.”

Fredson said the Minnesota AFL-CIO and regional labor federations in St. Paul and Minneapolis have raised concerns about the contract. “If we were elected, it would be [dead on arrival]”, he said. Members of the Met Council are appointed by the governor.

Council President Charlie Zelle, however, said “sometimes you have to do the hardest thing… To ignore it would be irresponsible and delay would not be productive.”

Jose P. Rogers