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Feds grant preliminary approval to third rail line

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A third light rail corridor serving the Twin Cities has federal backing, it was announced Friday.

Federal approval has been given to begin engineering studies for the Southwest Corridor rail line linking Eden Prairie and Minneapolis, and St. Paul via Central Corridor.

Approval from the Federal Transit Administration is crucial because the Met Council is planning for the federal government to pick up half of the $1.25 billion dollar cost for the line.

The approval does not come with funds yet, but it is a significant step, Hennepin County commissioner Gail Dorfman said.

"We move really from 100 projects around the country that we were competing with that were in the same phase of planning, to joining about a dozen projects around the country that are in this preliminary engineering phase. So it's really significant," she said.

The Southwest Corridor LRT is not expected to be completed until 2017 at the earliest. The Met Council estimates the daily weekday ridership could match that of the Hiawatha Light Rail Line.

In a September 2 letter to Met Council chair Sue Haigh, the FTA says the Met Council must analyze the affect of relocating the Twin Cities & Western freight line that runs on a portion of the planned Southwest LRT route.

the current plan for the Southwest LRT moves the Twin Cities and Western trains to the MN & S line that runs north and south through St. Louis Park, Dorfman said. The FTA noted that even if the Met Council finds other funds to pay for that part of the project, it must list the cost and extent of the relocation before entering into the final design phase.

Finding additional state funding for the Southwest LRT will be a challenge, Dorfman said.

"I think it'll be difficult with the state, but we already have $5 million in bonding that was approved by the Legislature in 2009 and we'll go back to the Legislature with the support of the business community and talk about how important it is to make this investment," she noted.

The state's contribution will amount to 10 percent of the total project cost, estimated to be $1.25 billion, Dorfman said. If final approval is granted the federal government will contribute 50 percent of the cost. Hennepin county would kick in 10 percent and the Counties Transit Improvement Board's five-county sales tax would pay for 30 percent.