Work on Minnesota's largest public infrastructure project is ahead of schedule.
Central Corridor light rail planners say the second year of construction on the line connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis went much smoother than the first.
Residents and businesses weary from the chaos of light rail work can rejoice in one thing: Next year, there will be no more torn-up streets.
Heavy construction on University Avenue, the Green Line's main thoroughfare, wrapped up at the end of November. The steel track is in the street, and the new stations are shining.
Planners say contractors hit all of their major deadlines this year and fulfilled promises to restore the street in front of any given business within five months.
It's a far cry from the project's rocky inaugural year, when dawdling construction and disruptions to businesses plagued the buildout.
Mark Fuhrmann, a top project official with the Metropolitan Council, remembers those days well. At that time, the council had divided up the work into segments a mile long, which Fuhrmann now believes was not the best approach.
"The contractor did not always have the full resources and full crews to work a mile segment, so there were idle work zones," Fuhrmann said. "Can't have that — on any project."
This year, the work was scheduled in smaller stretches, and council allowed the contractor to tear up the street only when it had the crews and equipment in place. Fuhrmann said that was just one change that came out of a period of self-reflection at the end of the first season.
"We took a step back — and we here at the project office and our contractors did a self-assessment and said, 'Here's what worked in 2011, and here's what didn't.' We all recognized the need to improve in 2012," he said.
Another improvement is that Walsh Construction, the Chicago-based contractor building the St. Paul portion of the line, hired a full-time outreach coordinator to respond to problems more quickly than last year.
Crews also benefited from the mild weather. They began work in February, about a month earlier than what's typical in Minnesota. During the summer months, the project spent about $1 million dollars' worth of construction a day, Fuhrmann said.
Today, the project is 84 percent complete, surpassing the council's goal of 75 percent.
The only remaining piece of roadwork this season is on a two-block stretch of Cedar Street in downtown St. Paul, in front of MPR's broadcasting studio and two historic churches. Crews last week finished installing a special track as part of its agreement with MPR, which in 2010 waged an unsuccessful lawsuit against the project over concerns about noise and vibration from the trains.
It's a three-layer cake of concrete and track floating on thousands of rubber pucks. The design is intended to isolate vibrations. Construction on Cedar should be completed within the next couple of weeks.
Officials with the city of St. Paul, who in the past criticized construction, say they're much more pleased this year, particularly with the completion of University Avenue.
"It's great," said Nancy Homans, policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman. "The end of construction is just a huge milestone, and everyone should be really proud. The street looks beautiful."
CONSTRUCTION WEARS ON COMMUNITY
Community members in St. Paul say this year did have several bright spots, but it was far from perfect.
Advisory groups of community members and businesses gave another round of low marks for Walsh Construction, recommending 49 percent of its available incentive pay for the quarter that ended Sept. 30. The Met Council, however, upped the bonus pay to 65 percent, or $45,500, because project officials believed Walsh improved its performance over the previous quarter.
In an aging brick office building that houses the Asian Economic Development Association, an intern is installing AA batteries into Christmas lights that the group plans to put up along storefronts. The group is branding the area surrounding the Western Avenue station as Little Mekong.
Community organizer Joo-Hee Pomplun said although the Met Council provided bilingual staff to answer a construction hotline, they didn't always answer the calls. She said some immigrant business owners just gave up.
"The compassion for the businesses, and for the people who had to live or work in the construction zone, was really lacking at some points of the summer," Pomplun said. "By the end of the summer, the Met Council may feel that things improved quite a bit because hotline calls decreased, but it's our perspective that it's due to fatigue."
The Met Council agrees that communication with businesses could be improved.
The head of the Asian business group, Va-Megn Thoj, said the community could have been better prepared if light rail planners were up front about the extent of losses some businesses would face.
Thoj said he knows of business owners who have reported losses up of to 60 percent. He notes that the Federal Transit Administration and the Met Council last year issued a report predicting construction would lead to revenue losses of 0 to 2.5 percent.
"Early on, there was always a spin that this is a big project, one of the biggest in the state, but there wasn't a commitment at the same time to say, 'It's such a big project that we need to do all we can to assist businesses that will be impacted,' " Thoj said.
Yet city and Met Council officials say businesses have not taken full advantage of $4 million available to help struggling businesses. Only about 63 percent of the fund has been awarded in forgivable loans.
The loans were capped at $20,000 each, which some businesses say weren't adequate. The project might be willing to extend the cap or allow businesses to apply for a second round if there are some dollars left in the fund by early next year, Fuhrmann said.
The council will also continue next year with a marketing campaign to bring more people to the corridor. The $1.2 million effort, called "On the Green Line," just launched a glossy visitor's guide promoting area restaurants and businesses.
"That's a worthy question that our policy makers will consider," Fuhrmann said.
Despite a productive construction season, it will still be at least another year before the trains start to roll. Next year, workers will string electrical wires and conduct test runs along the route.
Project planners will only say the line will open sometime in 2014. Many elected officials hope it will happen in time for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, scheduled for July of that year.
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