Transit project delivery in the Twin Cities is characterized by an evolution in approaches that the region has refined to fit its needs. In developing mega-projects roughly once per decade, officials have placed more emphasis on community engagement and increased the amount of control retained by public agencies over project details. This and several other factors have resulted in per-mile costs increasing from an average of $83 million on the Blue Line in the early 2000s to an estimated $138 million on the extension currently under construction.
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The Minneapolis-St. Paul region has a unique governance structure for building and operating rail transit that involves multiple state and local entities. The Metropolitan Council is the region’s MPO, planning agency, and transit operator. The Met Council is controlled by the Governor of Minnesota, who appoints each of its 17 board members. However, its members must reside in and represent regional districts that are sized based on population, effectively adding a local element to the agency’s governing body. Metro Transit is a division of Met Council and is responsible for operating commuter rail, light rail, and most regular-route bus service in the region. It is also the primary agency responsible for delivering major transit capital projects. The agency receives the bulk of its operating funds from state and county sources, and most of its capital construction funds from county and federal sources.
The Twin Cities metropolitan area includes seven counties, all of which play a major role in planning and funding transit capital projects. In 1980, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Regional Railroad Authorities Act which required counties to create “regional railroad authorities” to acquire, plan, tax, and execute rail projects across the state.399 This was partly in response to freight railroads abandoning lines as well as a desire for the state to consider developing passenger rail corridors. For transit, the counties coordinate with the Met Council to create a plan for light rail lines and are responsible for beginning the planning and environmental review process. Once those documents are drafted by county staff, they are handed over to Metro Transit to deliver the project. The counties are also able levy taxes to pay for a portion of the construction of those lines. The county regional railroad authority boards are the same as the county boards of commissioners.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is actively involved in transit corridor construction in several ways. Transit lines often cross or run parallel to state roadways, so MnDOT staff assist in project designs that affect their assets. Given its expertise, MnDOT handled the purchasing of ROW on behalf of Metro Transit for the first lines, and now supports Metro Transit’s in house staff. Although not directly from MnDOT, the state provided some of the funding to the Green and Blue lines.
Rail transit in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region consists of a two-line light rail system that has been built out over the past two decades, with an extension to one of the lines currently under construction. The light rail network interfaces with the region’s bus network, commuter rail line, and several bus rapid transit lines. The system is mostly at grade, and the costs per mile of the two projects are roughly in line with other at-grade rail projects elsewhere in the country.
The evolution of the approach to project delivery is evident through the differences between the two light rail lines (shown in Table 11) that have been constructed.
TABLE 11: TRANSIT LINES PROFILED IN THE MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL REGION
*A single delivery method is not always used on an entire project.
Scope changes can be kept to a minimum through effectively-run DB procurement methods.
The Blue Line, also called the Hiawatha Line, was the first light rail line delivered by the Met Council. The project broke ground on January 17, 2001 and began partial service in June 2004.400 The 12 mile long line consists of 19 stations, connecting the Minneapolis central business district, the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, and the Mall of America in Bloomington.401 While officials hoped to complete the line in 2003, opening was delayed by a year mainly due to route modifications and cost escalations due to inflation. The line began full service on December 4, 2004, 27 days ahead of the revised opening date after its initial delay.
Despite being on the planning books for years, the Blue Line did not move forward until it had completely secured its funding. Several political factors helped the project sponsors assemble the funding sources that enabled the project to become a reality (see Table 12). The governor and state legislature were in favor of the project and contributed over $120 million in state funding. The Hennepin Regional Railroad Authority put forth $84 million and the airport provided $87 million to provide transit access underneath its terminals. Lastly, Metro Transit was able to secure over 50 percent of its funding from federal sources.
TABLE 12: BLUE AND GREEN LINE FUNDING SOURCES
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 2020; Lucy Thompson, City of St. Paul. 2010
Once the funding package was complete, a new Hiawatha Office was created at Metro Transit to manage the project’s final design and delivery. The office brought in planners and project managers from Met Council, the airport, and MnDOT, among others.
The 1.8 miles segment of rail underneath the airport partially utilized an existing tunnel and used TBMs for the remainder. According to engineers, the tunnel boring conditions at the airport are ideal: a limestone cap with sandstone underneath. Such geology made the tunneling both easier and faster. The project also utilized existing ROW and bridges, which further reduced complexity and cost. Metro Transit decided to deliver the Blue Line using a DB procurement, which made design changes more difficult and costly to make, minimizing the number scope modifications. Some of the limits on betterments were tied to the route: much of the project’s ROW is on either an industrial corridor or airport property, limiting impacts on the local community and minimizing the need to acquire private property.402
Metro Transit also had success relocating utilities, despite legal action by some companies. For example, when constructing the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis, the electric utility company, Xcel Energy, agreed to move their utilities at their own expense, as required by state law. Metro Transit worked with MnDOT given their expertise in utility relocation but when MnDOT took control of the project’s ROW to help with relocation, Xcel argued that they did not have enough access to some of their other facilities. A lawsuit ended up in the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled that the electric company had no ability to change its previous agreement with Metro Transit.403 Creating smart agreements early on in the process benefited Metro Transit and reduced project costs.
DBB allows for more public sector control over the design process.
The Green Line was the region’s second rail transit line, connecting the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul by adding 11 miles of new track. In 2008, the Met Council approved the project and the project’s final EIS, FTA approved the project’s final design in May 2010, and construction began in December 2010. Revenue service began in June 2014.404
The region made several changes to its project delivery approach with the Green Line. First, it relied more heavily on county funding, with the counties contributing nearly 40 percent of the project costs. Increased funding from local sources allowed the project to proceed without securing as much political support from the state legislature as was necessary for the Blue Line.
Metro Transit and the counties decided to use a DBB procurement method, despite the timeline and budget success it had using DB on the Blue Line. This decision was mostly because the project sponsors wanted to retain more control over the design of the project and its stations.
Metro Transit also decided to dedicate multiple staff to community engagement, particularly given the line runs through several immigrant communities. These staff worked with residents and business owners and often spoke the languages that were common among nearby residents. Metro Transit surveyed the community, conducted focus groups with key constituencies, and posted online maps where people could call out specific complaints or suggestions and pin them to the map. When soliciting feedback, staff made it a priority to respond to every comment they received.
This thorough community engagement led to many changes and additions to the project scope, with many interviewees characterizing the betterment process on the Green Line as having “blossomed,” “intense,” and, in some cases, “out of control.” The project ultimately became more than just a light rail project, but an opportunity to redo the entire streetscape and underground utilities across the project’s alignment. The University of Minnesota also had several demands, including the inclusion of “floating slab” track sections to mitigate vibrations and noise. These requests resulted in additional costs, which were absorbed by the project.
Despite the increased costs, community engagement did result in enhancements that greatly improved the project. For example, the outreach teams learned that the proposed stations in the heavily minority and immigrant communities along the line were too far apart. Planners changed the design and added new stops to serve these communities, elevating their voices and allowing them to communicate with Metro Transit. These modifications and design decisions made the Green Line project 18 percent more expensive on a per mile basis than the Blue Line, even though the Blue Line involved tunneling.
The designers also made several decisions that positively affected the project timelines and costs, including the retrofit of the existing Washington Avenue Bridge across the Mississippi river to accommodate light rail tracks instead of constructing a new bridge, which saved at least $75 million and 2 years of construction. They also ran underground utilities, like water lines, on both sides of the tracks so future utility work would not affect rail service. Learning from the challenges with the Blue Line, utility companies negotiated from a stronger position up front and received some reimbursement for relocation. One interviewee noted that utility upgrades and relocation often remain the responsibility of private companies or utilities, but it is often easier for the project team to assume this responsibility to save time, and thus money.405
The region is currently extending the Green Line 14.5 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis as part of the Southwest LRT Extension project. The approximately $2 billion project is being delivered using a DBB procurement. While Metro Transit is still utilizing a DBB procurement, any betterment proposal is paid for by the requesting entity, which is either a locality, utility, or MnDOT.
While projects are constructed relatively quickly, planning often takes decades to complete.
One of the successes of the Twin Cities’ project delivery approach is the largely on-time and on-budget completion of the Green and Blue lines. However, interviewees consistently mentioned that the projects had been in planning for years, if not decades prior to the official start of the project. As a result, the region has taken significant time to build out its light rail network, and the years in between projects made it difficult for the agency to retain its project delivery staff. These costs and timelines are not considered in assessing transit project delivery.
Met Council began exploring light rail networks and working with the community on alignments in the 1980s. This involved myriad studies, community engagement, and exploring of alternatives. Much of this time was spent in “analysis-paralysis” mode and arguing over the merits of light rail in general. By the time funding was complete and the project was ready to begin, many of the major issues and alternatives had been worked out. As a result, the Twin Cities has a strong culture and involved process for community engagement manifested in frequent public meetings and staff dedicated to working with the community and resolving issues during design and construction.406
However, several interviewees complained that in the Twin Cities region, Metro Transit must seek municipal consent from local jurisdiction on alignment and station locations. While the agency can override a local rejection of the preliminary plan, the project would face challenges in the form of non-cooperation during construction. Therefore many of the routes chosen for light rail are those that are most politically expedient and cause the least disruption—such as along freight rail or highway corridors—rather than dense areas where transit would make the most sense for future riders. The region’s high emphasis on community engagement can also absolve leaders of their responsibility to make tough decisions. This dynamic can undermine support for future extensions, as the resulting transit lines are not as useful as they could be.