Central corridor applies for federal funding

Mark Fuhrmann
Central Corridor project director Mark Fuhrman and his staff have prepared an FTA application seeking $450 million in federal dollars for the 11 mile rail connection between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis along University avenue.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

It's a little early to start planning your schedule around the Central Corridor light rail line. The first trains won't run until 2014, six years from now.

And that's only if the Federal Transit Administration blesses the project with its approval which means up to $450 million in federal funds - about half of the $915 million price tag.

The proposed Central Corridor light rail service is important for at least two reasons.

Ramsey County commissioner Rafael Ortega and other advocates of the project see it as the transit link between the eastern and western half of the Twin Cities and sometime in the murky transportation future a link even with other cities.

Rafael Ortega
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega sees the Central Corridor line as a transit link between the eastern and western half of the Twin Cities. In the future, he hopes it could connect the Twin Cities with places like Duluth and Chicago.
Courtesy of Rafael Ortega

"This is one of the legs of eventually a system for the entire metro area. And hopefully to connect from places like Duluth and Chicago," he says.

The vision is that those rail lines would converge on the historic Union Depot, a rail hub from another era in downtown St. Paul.

However, finding money to pay for that vision will be a challenge to say the least.

Already the Central Corridor project has been trimmed and trimmed again, to cope with rising costs and keep it within a rigid Federal Transit Administration funding formula.

Project director Mark Fuhrman says there's been an eye-popping increase in the cost of a major component of the project.

Mariia Zimmerman
Mariia Zimmerman, Transportation for America, an advocacy group in suburban Washington, D.C. says the federal governments road, bridge and transit funds are running a deficit as Congress prepares to deal with the reauthorization next year of the federal transportation act.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"We have just seen in the last year a 100 percent increase in the steel required for the tracks for the project," he says.

There's another money problem: a pool of red ink rising in the various federal government transportation checking accounts.

Mariia Zimmerman works for Transportation for America, a Washington, D. C. Based advocacy group which supports investment in transportation systems including transit.

Far from proposing new transportation dollars, Congress, Zimmerman says, is trying to dig itself out of transportation funding deficits.

"This year there's an $8 billion dollar shortfall in the highway side of the federal transportation bill, Congress is working to plug that gap. Next year we're going to start seeing deficits in the federal transit trust fund," she says.

Considering all that, what are the chances Central Corridor will get federal funding?

Not bad, in the eyes of many of its local supporters.

They place a lot of hope on Minnesota's influence on key Congressional committees including the House Transportation Committee chaired by 8th District Cong. James Oberstar.

The Central Corridor application for federal funding is competing with 13 other transit projects from around the country.

A decision from the Federal Transit Administration on funding Central Corridor is expected by the spring of next year.