Courtesy of Minnpost and the Met Council, here’s a pie chart showing the ballooning costs for the planned “Bottineau” LRT line going Northwest out of downtown Minneapolis. (It’s also known as the “blue line extension.”) A recent Met Council report raised the projected price tag from $1 to $1.5 billion, which is a lot.
Here’s the chart showing where the extra $500 million dollars is coming from:
The Minnpost article explains it thus:
Some of the increase reflects construction challenges that were revealed by what project staff calls advanced engineering. For example, the wetlands next to BNSF tracks north of Olson Highway do not make for a solid foundation for a rail line, and the staff now proposes sinking pilings into the soft soils beneath the ponds and building a bridge on those pilings.
The route will also need eight light rail bridges instead of five. Plans also call for four park-and-rides rather than three; an overpass between a parking facility and the station at 63rd Avenue to make it safer to cross freight tracks; and the reconstructing of five roadway bridges instead of one.
And rather than a partial rebuild of Olson Highway to accommodate light rail tracks down the center, staff now thinks it will need a full reconstruction between I-94 and the BNSF right of way that runs between Golden Valley and Minneapolis.
But a few of the additions are political. Project staff had proposed a station at either Plymouth Avenue or Golden Valley Road. The cities want both, and both are in the budget. A park-and-ride facility at Golden Valley Road is also being discussed, though it’s not yet in the budget.
So while a lot of the added cost is due to unknowns discovered as the project advanced, some are add-ons to enhance service, safety and relations with the cities along the line.
Obviously, some writers here have already weighed in on this kind of engineering and financing relationship. Anyway, seeing the causes… does it make it better?
SWLRT Part 2: Electric Boondoggle
Part of it may be institutional (which is largely what Matt Steele was railing against in his post). But part of it is because the level of engineering necessary for a fairly accurate cost estimate is itself fairly expensive, not to mention time consuming. This is in part why a preferred alignment is selected before detailed engineering begins…so you only have that sunk engineering cost once. Of course, as more details along a given alignment come to light, that’s where your big cost increases tend to happen…same principle applies to highway projects.
How much money has been spent on Bottineau doing engineering work to this point? My gut says <$5m. If you kept 2, maybe 3 alignments (potentially modes) along to this stage in the process, we'd spend 2-3x more, but we're talking an order of magnitude less than the potential cost increases you're locked in to with a single alignment. It's possible this is a waste of money if the alignment we may have picked anyway sees no cost increases and still turns out to be the best deal (CEI-wise), but it's a pretty small amount to spend to potentially save hundreds of millions later on.
Do we expect SWLRT or Bottineau budgets to change much from this point on?
A lot more than that. Historically for major transportation projects, preliminary engineering/environmental runs in the neighborhood of 10% of the total cost. Furthermore, this Finance and Commerce article from last year states that Kimley-Horn’s contract for the Bottineau engineering could range up to 9-digits…the contract says no higher than $110M, but it’s a safe bet that it’ll run a majority of that figure.
Yeah, I think things like ‘is this route running through wetlands?’ or ‘can we actually reroute this freight line the entire plan is contingent on rerouting?’ are probably questions that should be answered BEFORE choosing an alignment and not things ‘discovered’ during the final engineering stage and treated as cost adjustments.
This is why Bottineau Light Rail should be on the OTHER route, the West Broadway / Penn Avenue route.
The Alternatives Analysis should be reopened due to discovering a Fatal Flaw (the wetlands) with the preferred alignment they chose.