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Freed funds to buy more rail cars, construction improvements for Central Corridor project

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Central Corridor construction
Construction crews work on the Central Corridor project on University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., on May 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Central Corridor light rail builders are discussing how to spend $155 million dollars in a contingency fund.

The contingency fund makes up about 20 percent of the cost of the estimated $957 million Central Corridor project. It's not new money. It was always built into the price tag of the project.

However, planners couldn't use any of the contingency dollars until the project reached a construction goal of 20 percent completion.  The goal was met in July.

Central Corridor project manager Mark Fuhrmann said the contingency money will pay for 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 Fourth Street that didn't appear on anybody's sheet, and so we had to remove those and relocate those with new utilities," Fuhrmann said.   A veteran builder of seven large transit projects, Fuhrmann said polluted soil poses another unknown expense.

He said excavation for an eleven-mile rail project through two central cities inevitably reveals pockets of pollution that need to be removed and disposed of properly.

Builders will also tap the contingency fund to help pay for the additional light rail vehicles, Fuhrmann said.

The current budget will provide 41 cars which will be linked in two-car trains.

Sixteen additional cars will be purchased from Siemens at a cost of about $3.3 million each. The additional cars will be needed if light rail ridership between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis grows as expected, Fuhrmann said.

"Sixteen additional, which will allow for three-car trains, which we've begun to need on Hiawatha and we expect we will need soon after we open on central," Fuhrmann said.

In addition, bids for building the line came in lower than expected. 

Some of the available contingency funds be used to address the problem of 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 into the ground.

Tapping contingency dollars puts the permeable pavers back into the project. Fuhrmann said

Crews are racing to finish as much work as possible this season before cold weather curtails construction.

Workers have erected a tall metal fence at University Ave. near Snelling Ave. to keep pedestrians and traffic out of the construction zone.

Work has reduced access to business parking lots and swallowed up on street parking.

The contingency fund is for unexpected construction costs but it may also help businesses along the corridor.

As much as $1.2 million may be used for a marketing campaign aimed at boosting business along University Ave.

Some businesses along University Ave, have complained of losing customers because of construction. There's a separate mitigation fund of $4 million for which smaller business owners can apply to receive forgivable loans of up to $20,000 to help recover lost revenue.

Steve Bernick, an owner in Milbern's, a men's clothing store located in the area for 60 years, supports using contingency money to improve the light rail project, and said he'll likely apply to the mitigation fund.

He worries, however, the business loan fund will come up short.

"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.

The Metropolitan Council is expected to decide by the end of the September how to use some of the money from the contingency fund.

Addtionally, $34 million have become available because contractors came in with construction bids lower than were anticipated.

While most of the legal challenges to Central Corridor have been settled, still pending is a lawsuit filed by Minnesota Public Radio. 

MPR is suing the Metropolitan Council over concerns about noise and vibration to the company's headquarters right next to the line.