A controversial plan to ship light-rail vehicles from the Twin Cities to Louisiana for maintenance was passed Wednesday by the Metropolitan Council.
In an 8-5 vote, the council awarded a $7.7 million contract to Florida-based RailCar Corp., which will oversee rust mitigation and other improvements for 16 Bombardier light-rail vehicles. The company, which submitted its proposal almost a year ago, was the lone bidder.
The decision came after the union representing light-rail mechanics insisted that its members could do the work in Minnesota.
“The work and taxpayers’ money are being shipped out of state when we could have done it here,” said Ryan Timlin, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents mechanics and others at Metro Transit.
But Brian Funk, Metro Transit’s interim COO, said delaying the decision could “equal more damage, more cost and [a] compromised life span” for the light-rail vehicles.
The transit agency hopes that each vehicle will stay in service for up to 40 years. The Blue Line began service in 2004, so some of Metro Transit’s trains are at least 17 years old.
Shipping older light-rail vehicles to Louisiana will give Metro Transit’s maintenance staff a head start on rust mitigation for an additional 64 light-rail cars made by Siemens that have less corrosion, Funk said.
Metro Transit has been aware of the rust corrosion problem for at least four years. ATU workers have already completed rust mitigation work on 11 vehicles, but work was slowed while Metro Transit’s maintenance facility in Minneapolis was expanded to make room for vehicles for the new Southwest light-rail line.
It remains unclear when Southwest, an extension of the Green Line linking Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, will begin service, but it will be after 2023.
Funk acknowledged that Metro Transit hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of the rust corrosion problem. “We got a late start on this,” he said.
He also maintained that it has been difficult to hire employees to do the work, given the statewide worker shortage. Though there were 41 openings for maintenance workers through August, Metro Transit was only able to hire two people.
The union maintains that the hiring process has been slowed because a test given to potential light-rail mechanics has been halted while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigates the test for racial bias.
The vehicles are expected to be shipped to Louisiana by rail at a cost of $40,000 per vehicle. The contract could ultimately total $12 million, to be funded by federal and local sources.
The debate on the issue Wednesday was rare for the council.
“This is outsourcing, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Council Member Kris Fredson. “We’re hearing our employees tell us they believe they can do the work and they want to do the work.”
Fredson said the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the St. Paul and Minneapolis regional labor federations have raised concerns about the contract. “If we were elected this would be [dead on arrival],” he said. Met Council members are appointed by the governor.
Council Chair Charlie Zelle said, however, that “sometimes you have to do the hard thing … To ignore this would be irresponsible and a delay wouldn’t be productive.”