For years, concerned Minneapolis residents warned Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council of problems they would face building and operating the Southwest light-rail project (SWLRT). Instead of heeding our advice, the agencies dismissed us as ignorant NIMBYs, discounted our wisdom and pushed the project through.
The problems we predicted have materialized and the project is a shambles: four years behind schedule, paralyzed by infighting with contractors and far over budget. Sold to us at $975 million, SWLRT has tripled in cost to $2.7 billion — and counting.
Having made a complete mess of the project, the county and the council tell us we have no choice but to proceed. And unbelievably, now that the problems we predicted can no longer be dismissed, the Met Council has the audacity to claim that the issues were "unforeseen."
But over and over, in public testimony, letters and reports, we predicted:
- The space between the Kenilworth Channel and Lake Street would be too narrow to accommodate the project. But the council ignored us and was forced to build a costly tunnel.
- The tunnel would be too close to the condominium building foundation (18 inches); hence the council had to build secant walls.
- The SWLRT would run dangerously close to the existing railroad line; so Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) demanded a $93 million safety wall to protect the segment near their trains (but the homes of many residents remain exposed).
- The congested construction site would be complex and dangerous, involving heavy machinery, hazardous freight, residences, auto, bike and pedestrian traffic. In fact, there have been two potentially fatal instances of safety failures and the collapse of a crane above a condo. The project has a safety incident rate worse than the industry standard.
- The geology of the area — shaped by glaciers — is complicated and unstable. Predictably, metal pilings were dented by boulders as they were driven into the ground. Divers had to be hired to detect the underwater leaks, and the leaks needed repair.
- The costs were grossly underestimated, hence the coming financial raid on Hennepin County taxpayers.
We made other predictions that remain to be tested.
We said ridership estimates were inflated. We know that post-pandemic, more people will work from home, and ridership will be even lower.
We incessantly cited the catastrophic potential of an accident involving both SWLRT and the adjacent freight train. Light-rail transit runs by overhead electric wires, only 10 feet from a freight train that regularly hauls explosive ethanol. This is a design for disaster — storing the matches next to the lighter fluid — on a massive scale. It sets the stage for an explosion like the one that destroyed Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, killing 47 people. A similar SWLRT accident would instantly incinerate a Minneapolis neighborhood encompassing thousands of homes, a grade school and a nursing home.
But the Met Council dismisses this warning as it dismissed all the others that we have, correctly, raised. There is no satisfaction in having our previous predictions proved correct. There will only be hideous grief if we are proved correct in this one as well.
What to do now?
Met Council units involved in SWLRT construction should be immediately placed in receivership, perhaps under the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The new leadership should consider rerouting the Minneapolis section away from the problematic lakes area.
The Legislature should:
- Support the bipartisan group of legislators demanding that the legislative auditor investigate the Met Council's handling of the SWLRT.
- Reconstitute the council so it's accountable to the public. A majority of its members should be elected, not appointed by the governor. While any incumbent governor may be reluctant to cede control over this exceedingly rich and powerful agency, he or she should be even more reluctant to be responsible for the malfunction and irresponsibility inherent in its current structure.
- Prune the Met Council back to its original planning function and move its construction and operations function to a different agency or agencies.
Finally, every unit of local government should study this colossal failure as a lesson in what happens when government officials are too arrogant to heed the wisdom of the people they serve.
Mary Pattock lives in Minneapolis.