Trains on the new Green Line light rail transit system will ramp up their test runs by the middle of this week.
Over the next few weeks, the trains will make the 11-mile trip between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis as often as every 10 minutes - a sign that the Central Corridor project is 99 percent complete.
But there's still work to do, not only by light rail workers, but also by police officers, community organizers -- and artists who have their eyes on the Green Line's June 14 opening date.
Among those who are eager for the Green Line's launch is Thomas Ku, who works at the Thai Cafe in St. Paul. Ku, who has watched the occasional test train sail past the restaurant's window facing University Avenue, said there's only one thing missing from those trains -- people.
"We're hoping to have a lot more customers, a lot more business," Ku said. "During construction, it was really, really bad. We had no customers."
Many of the businesses along the line share Ku's sentiment. They survived the worst of construction, and now they want to see what light rail can do for them.
The train will stop right in front of the Thai Cafe, at the corner of University and Western avenues. Western was one of three stops that weren't part of the original plans, but were added after community groups pushed for their inclusion. The area known as Little Mekong now boasts spiffed-up storefronts, and there are big plans to revitalize the corner with an Asian cultural center and a summer night market.
Artist organizer Oskar Ly of the Asian Economic Development Association has been busy scheduling street performances to coincide with the June launch. Ly said her job is to help evoke a sense of place and pride in the area.
"We really want to invite folks to experience Little Mekong district, and take the train if they want to, but really to visit all the things that Little Mekong has to offer," she said.
As Ly prepares for community celebrations on University Avenue, Metro Transit and St. Paul police are working to promote safety with a new campaign that kicks off today.
"It's going to focus on education -- so officers engaging with people and talking with them about safety along the line," Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said. Drivers should prepare to adjust to the new line, he said.
To get the message across, Siqveland said officers will also be issuing citations, and primarily will focus on intersections to make sure pedestrians are crossing at the crosswalks, and that drivers are waiting for the green arrow to make left turns.
"So imagine you're a motorist, and that light might be changing, and you have a temptation to try to get through there before it changes," he said. "But the result is you get hung up in the intersection, and that's what officers want to make sure motorists are aware of around trains."
Metro Transit is also training 60 new rail operators on how to use the new trains. Hence, all of those test runs.
The project had a minor setback in February when a test train slipped off an icy part of the track in downtown St. Paul on the day President Obama was visiting just blocks away.
Dan Soler with the Metropolitan Council said the good news is that hasn't happened since.
"We've been out of that, don't plan on any more derailments ever again," he said. "It's always best if the train stays on the tracks."
Soler said crews are putting the finishing touches on the project, including tearing out and replacing the concrete panels at intersections that were cracking prematurely. He said Chicago-based contractor Walsh Construction has agreed to pay for the fixes at their cost, over the company's initial objections.
"Obviously there's always a discussion of, 'Well, that's not my fault, that's not my fault, that's not my fault,'" he said. "These are the ones we've said, 'Yes, they are, and these are the ones you need to fix.'"
Project planners also have been meeting with officials of Minnesota Public Radio to decide on a way to quiet the vibrations affecting some of MPR's broadcast and production studios in downtown St. Paul. The problems are not caused by the trains themselves, but by the cars, buses, and trucks crossing the tracks. Both MPR and Met Council agree that the levels are out of compliance with an agreement reached in 2009, before MPR sued over the project.
Soler said the possible mitigation measures vary widely, including additional soundproofing in the building or new street surfacing that could lessen road noise. Met Council officials met with MPR representatives as recently as last week.
"There is urgency, no doubt," said Nick Kereakos, MPR's vice president of technology and operations. "It would be premature to declare any one solution. But we're confident there is a solution."
Met Council officials say they're confident there's time to finish all of the remaining work before the trains start to roll -- with actual people in them.
Editor's note: An initial version of this article inaccurately reflected the timeline in which MPR sued over the Central Corridor project. The story has been updated with the correct information.