The Federal Transit Administration says it will keep closer tabs on the Metropolitan Council in light of community concerns over a light-rail line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis.
But the FTA's Office of Civil Rights said it found no evidence to support claims by two St. Paul community groups that the 11-mile Central Corridor project would adversely affect minority neighborhoods along the line.
The decision came just as local and federal officials are preparing to sign a long-awaited deal obligating the federal government to pay for half of the costs associated with the $957 million project.
In an April 22 letter to groups representing Asian- and African-American businesses and residents, Linda Ford, the acting director of the FTA's civil-rights office, wrote that the Met Council is planning and building the line consistent with federal rules barring discrimination.
The Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee and the Concerned Asian Business Owners filed administrative complaints with the FTA in 2009, warning that the project could disproportionately harm communities of color.
The Rondo group followed up later that year with a lawsuit alleging similar claims. A federal judge in St. Paul ruled that light rail should go forward, but he ordered light-rail planners to do more studies showing how businesses would be affected.
Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, said he's not surprised by the FTA's decision on the civil-rights complaints. But he said the FTA was evaluating the current project, not the one proposed two years ago. Asian-American business owners lodged the complaint in part because light-rail planners initially rejected the idea of a business compensation fund, Thoj said.
"They did not want to hear that," Thoj said of the Met Council. "But two years later, everyone realizes we need adequate financial assistance in order to preserve businesses on the avenue. That's a 180-degree reversal."
Project partners recently assembled a $4 million compensation fund to help struggling businesses, and advocates like Thoj say that wouldn't have happened without pressure from businesses and community groups. Thoj also credits new leadership at the Met Council.
Although the FTA sided against the community groups, it created a "monitoring program" to keep the Met Council accountable for its promises to help businesses, according to the Ford letter.
The council will be required to submit monthly reports detailing the money spent to date on the project, details regarding requests for mitigation, the number of businesses opening and closing along the line, and any construction-related complaints.
On Tuesday, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff will join local officials for the signing of a full-funding grant agreement. It's considered to be the last major step of Central Corridor's planning and development process, all but assuring the state's largest infrastructure project will be built.