Officials still expect Central Corridor funding agreement next year

A plan by some Republicans in Congress to ban so-called earmarks could imperil projects such as the Central Corridor light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The first major portion of federal money for the proposed line is an earmark.

What does that mean for the future of Central Corridor? The simple answer is the project is on, but half the funding still needs to be secured.

It's on in the sense that construction contracts have been awarded and preliminary construction -- the moving of utility lines and such -- is underway, as is the first phase of heavy construction.

What's missing is a funding agreement from the federal government, though Metropolitan Council officials say they expect it by early next year. The Central Corridor price tag is $957 million and planners are counting on federal funds to pay half the cost of the project, about $470 million.

The immediate issue is the fate of one of the federal down payments. The House Transportation Appropriations committee has recommended the House approve $45 million. That measure is an earmark which might be subject to a ban if GOP leaders follow through on their pledge.

However, Metropolitan Council officials remain confident saying no transit project has ever reached this stage and failed to get the federal money it needs for completion. Also, Central Corridor ranks very high on the Federal Transit Administration's list of favorites.

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Decisions by incoming GOP congressional leaders over the next few days and weeks will play an important role in clarifying the Central Corridor funding picture.

Met Council officials say about $120 million has been spent on the project so far, and about a quarter of that, $33 million, is federal. Another large portion of money is from the state of Minnesota, which has a total commitment of $91 million to Central Corridor. Tens of millions more from the Counties Transit Improvement Board and from Hennepin and Ramsey counties is part of the spending.

Roughly $600 million in contracts have been awarded so far. A good share of the money spent so far has been advanced by the state and local partners with the promise from the Federal Transit Administration that when Central Corridor gets a full funding grant agreement, the state and counties will be reimbursed for half the costs.

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Editor's note: This original version of this story incorrectly reported that $45 million for Central Corridor is not part of the President's budget request to Congress. That is not correct. The request is part of the President's 2011 budget proposal to Congress. However, Congressional leaders officially consider the request an earmark as part of their budget process.