Businesses on University Avenue struggling in the shadow of Central Corridor light rail construction may get a financial boost thanks to the project meeting a key deadline.
The project is now 20 percent complete, triggering a clause in the builder's contract allows for the release of $155 million in contingency funds built into its $957 million budget.
Along with the purchase of big-ticket items such as more rail cars and surprise construction expenses, roughly $1.2 million may be used for a marketing campaign aimed at boosting business along University Avenue.
There's also a separate mitigation fund of $4 million that small business owners can apply to for forgivable loans of up to $20,000, to help cover lost revenue.
Some businesses along University Avenue have complained of losing customers because of construction. Central Corridor crews are racing to finish as much work as possible this season before cold weather curtails construction. That work has reduced access to business parking lots and swallowed up street parking.
Steve Bernick, one of the owners of Milbern's, a 60-year-old men's clothing store on University Avenue near Snelling Avenue, said he'll likely apply to the fund for one of the business loans. But he worries the business loan fund is too small.
"We all want to look nice and be beautiful but we have to have some businesses to survive along the avenue for it to be functional," Bernick said.
MORE RAIL CARS
Central Corridor project manager Mark Fuhrmann said a much larger chunk of the contingency money will be tapped for additional light rail vehicles.
The current budget includes 41 cars to be used to make two-car trains. Sixteen additional cars are being purchased with contingency funds from Siemens for $53.7 million, or about $3.3 million each, he said.
The cars will be needed if light rail ridership between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis grows as expected, allowing for three-care trains currently in use on the Hiawatha line.
Fuhrmann said the contingency money will also pay to cover the cost of a few surprises, including the discovery made by construction crews earlier this summer near where the line ends in Lowertown, east of downtown St. Paul.
"There were some 120-year-old utilities underneath 4th Street that didn't appear on anybody's sheet and so we had to remove those and relocate those with new utilities," Fuhrmann said.
Polluted soil poses another unknown expense, even if its discovery along the 11-mile rail project through two central cities is unsurprising.
Some of the contingency money will also be used to address another common urban issue: storm water runoff.
Early budget trimming substituted less expensive concrete sidewalks along the line for permeable pavers — bricks that allow storm water to pass through them. But those special pavers are a better solution, and back in the plans, he said.
"There is permeable soil below [the special pavers] that will help control the storm water, rather than have all that storm water go into the sewers and the Mississippi," Fuhrmann said.
The Metropolitan Council is expected to decide by the end of the month how to use some of the money from the contingency fund.
Meanwhile, while most of the legal challenges to Central Corridor have been settled, a lawsuit filed by Minnesota Public Radio is still pending.
MPR is suing the Metropolitan Council over concerns about noise and vibration to the company's headquarters right next to the line in downtown St. Paul.