The federal government has tentatively agreed to pay for half the nearly $1 billion Central Corridor light-rail line, bringing the project one step closer to securing all of the necessary cash for completion, regional planners say.
The Federal Transit Administration has forwarded its "full funding grant agreement" onto Congress, which will review the deal over the next two months.
Although recent changes in Congress have thrown into doubt some of the federal funding for the rail line linking St. Paul to Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council and other local project partners are optimistic that the deal will be finalized in April.
"We are at the 99.9 percent confidence level," said the Met Council's Mark Fuhrmann, who is overseeing the project.
Still, local partners will probably be celebrating more loudly once the deal is signed by the heads of the FTA and the Met Council.
"I have every confidence that it's going to happen the way it's always happened before, but we don't count our chickens before they're hatched," said Nancy Homans, the point person on the project for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough added: "I would say nothing is guaranteed, but this is a major point in the process. The FTA is standing behind this full funding grant agreement as meeting all the requirements to move forward."
The underlying concern stems from recent threats by some Republicans in Congress to ban earmarks and eliminate funding for the entire New Starts transit program, which includes Central Corridor.
Meanwhile, two business groups along St. Paul's University Avenue have written letters to Minnesota's members of Congress, urging them to consider a compensation fund for small businesses before the full-funding deal is signed.
Last week, a federal judge ordered the Met Council and the FTA to do more studies on how construction of the line would affect revenues of businesses along the avenue, but he stopped short of halting the project. Construction on the western end of University Avenue is scheduled to begin in March.
A lawsuit filed by Minnesota Public Radio is still pending. The company has sued over concerns about noise and vibrations.
Crews have already begun working on the 11-mile line, and the project has so far spent $145 million on design, property and construction. Trains are expected to begin rolling in 2014.