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Minnesota House nearly unanimously assents to Southwest Light Rail audit proposal

(The Center Square) – Minnesota taxpayers will pay $200,000 for the Office of the Legislative Auditor to conduct an audit of the Southwest Light Rail Green Line Extension project if HF 3035 is signed into law.

The House of Representatives passed the bill in a 129-1 vote Thursday. The bill allows the office to hire additional staff or contract with third parties with the one-time funding, which would be available through June 30, 2023.

The project is about $500 million over budget and about four years behind schedule.

“This bipartisan audit is about transparency, accountability, and oversight,” House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s author, said in a news release. “Minnesotans need answers to why this project is delayed and significantly over budget.”

The office would examine why the project is delayed and over budget; whether there was schedule or funding mismanagement; and whether the Met Council sufficiently examined decisions of routes and designs that have altered project plans and costs. It would assess cost estimating, contracting, negotiations, management and hiring that have resulted in cost overruns or delays.

The bill requires the office and the Met Council to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the project and analyze financial risk of further changes. The office would advise the Met Council and Hennepin County how to avoid overruns and delays, mitigate risks, assure quality and increase transparency.

The extension of the light rail line is supposed to increase service from Target Field Station to Eden Prairie, onward through Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka.

Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, voted against the bill. He did not immediately respond to The Center Square’s request for comment.

Baruch Feigenbaum told The Center Square in an emailed statement he thinks the audit is a positive first step, but it must be conducted by an independent firm with no relationship with the transit agency.

The evaluation should also ask whether the state can take action on any mismanagement, what steps must be taken to get the project back on schedule, and whether an independent oversight board is required for the remainder of the project, he said.

Minnesota House DFL Caucus Communications Specialist Gina Vega told The Center Square in an emailed statement Friday that the Senate is expected to take up the companion bill next week for a full vote.

“The Governor has indicated he will sign it,” she said.

The request for the special audit is one of nearly four dozen audit ideas lawmakers have in mind for the Office of the Legislative Auditor to conduct this year, and a final list of audits may be available later in March, MPR News reported.

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