Central Corridor project partners on Tuesday celebrated a key milestone in the often arduous task of connecting the Twin Cities with light-rail.
Washington sent its top transit official to St. Paul to sign a grant obligating the federal government to pay for half of the costs of building the $957 million transit system, the priciest public infrastructure project in Minnesota history. The federal approval is one of the last major planning steps for a project that has been talked about locally for 30 years, and virtually ensures that the line - of which 12 percent is already complete - will be built. The Metropolitan Council goal is to have trains running by 2014.
But the pace of payments from the federal government is still uncertain because Congress controls the appropriations process.
"I'm confident it's going to come through," said Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration. "It may not come as quickly as we want it to."
As light-rail supporters gathered for a ceremonial signing in St. Paul, officials paused to celebrate. And typically mild-mannered Minnesota politicians let their hair down.
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, one of the leaders of the project, implored the crowd to join him in the revelry: "Help me celebrate, and just make a nice, loud, holler!" he said.
McDonough and other partners have been coveting the $478 million grant from the federal government for some time. The Met Council's plans over the 11-mile line produced legal battles at just about every juncture.
Those have included worries about displacement and economic impact from community groups and small businesses, and concerns about noise and vibration from Minnesota Public Radio and the University of Minnesota. All of those fights complicated the project's path to federal approval.
But the arguments with community groups were necessary, said St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter III.
"And we're still not done arguing," Carter said. "Those arguments, some have been painful, but really important. We can all be this proud of this line because those conversations made this project even better."
Those conversations, along with a key funding-criteria change by the Obama administration, helped persuade light-rail planners to add three extra stops along the line in St. Paul, to better serve low-income and minority neighborhoods along University Avenue.
And just this month, project partners announced a $4 million compensation fund for businesses who can prove financial hardship during construction.
WORK FAR FROM OVER
Rogoff, the FTA administrator, said his office will keep a close eye on the Met Council to make sure it's doing everything it can to keep those mom-and-pop storefronts alive. In light of a lawsuit filed by Rondo neighborhood advocates and two civil-rights complaints, the FTA said it will monitor the Met Council's progress with its new business-mitigation program.
Rogoff met with about 15 Asian-American business owners Tuesday morning and had a "very frank and productive discussion," he said. He said the FTA is concerned about all businesses along the avenue.
"We are going to have them be part of the monitoring program, where we get not just the Met Council's take on how things are progressing, but also he business community's take on how they are progressing," he said.
Rogoff said the Met Council's management of the project so far could be improved.
"There are better and worse ways of doing this," he said. "There are best practices that have been shown in other cities where you get in, you rip up the street, and you get all the contractors there at one time, so you get in and get out as quickly as possible with a minimum of disruption to the businesses on that block."
Central Corridor contractors are required to restore the street in front of any business within five months.
Heavy construction on the project began last year, with local partners fronting the cash.
While the newly-signed grant commits the federal government to pay for its share of the line, officials say they may not get the payments as soon as they'd like. That's because it is the job of Congress to write the checks. And there's often a lag between when the money is appropriated and when it's finally received.
Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-Minn., said she has her work cut out for her in the coming years, as Republican leaders have threatened to slash funding for light-rail while addressing the nation's debt crisis.
"I'm confident we'll be able to do it, but I don't take anything for granted," McCollum said.
The first installment from the federal government's commitment is expected to come within six months, according to a Central Corridor spokeswoman.
As construction continues along the western edge of University Avenue in St. Paul, crews are also getting ready to close down a busy stretch of Washington Avenue in mid-May. Over the next two years, workers will transform the U of M thoroughfare into a transit-pedestrian mall. The 18-station line will share an additional five downtown Minneapolis stations with the Hiawatha line, connecting the downtowns of the Twin Cities.
The project will employ as many as 3,400 construction and other trade workers. Construction employment goals include directing as much as 15 percent of the contract awards to businesses owned by women and minorities.
With the federal government committed to paying about half the cost of the project, the rest of the money is coming from state and local sources. The Counties Transit Improvement Board, CTIB, is supplying 30 percent of the cost, the state about 10 percent. Ramsey and Hennepin counties are supplying seven and three percent.
Central Corridor ridership, officials say, is projected at 40,000 a day by 2030. Passengers should be able to travel the length of the line in 40 minutes.
The Central Corridor light rail line is the Twin Cities' third rail project. The Hiawatha line from downtown Minneapolis to the airport, and the Mall of America, was completed in 2004.
The Northstar Commuter Rail line from the northwestern suburb of Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis was finished in 2009. Metro Transit, a division of the Metropolitan Council, operates the completed lines.