The Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Project on May 25, 2010 received permission to enter final design, the last step before award of a federal Full Funding Grant Agreement for the biggest public works project in Minnesota history.
The project office will now submit documentation to the Federal Transit Administration for award of a Full Funding Grant Agreement – which represents the federal commitment to reimburse project partners for half the cost of building the $957 million, 11-mile line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The plan requests 50 percent from the federal government, 30 percent from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, 10 percent from the state, 7 percent from Ramsey County and 3 percent from Hennepin County and lesser amounts from St. Paul, Metropolitan Council and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.
“The FTA’s approval represents another important step in transforming this project from a 20-year-old dream into reality,” said Peter Bell, chair of the Met Council. “It will mean improved access for thousands of metro area residents to employment, educational and economic opportunities all along the corridor and beyond.”
Metro Council states that the Central LRT line is scheduled to be completed in 2014. It will link the Hiawatha LRT line from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis and the Northstar commuter rail line 40 miles from Big Lake to Minneapolis with several stops including Metrodome and Target Field Stations.
The project began earlier this year with advanced utility relocation work on Fourth Street in St. Paul, along with advanced traffic improvements around the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota. It is to prepare those streets for the routing of cars and trucks off of Washington Avenue to begin its transformation into a transit-pedestrian mall for LRT and buses.
Heavy construction work will begin in August on Robert and 12th streets east of the state Capitol and north of Interstate 94. Heavy construction will start on the western end of University Avenue in spring 2011 and on the eastern end in spring 2012.
“This benchmark has been years in the making,” states Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “The Central Corridor will be the largest economic development opportunity our region has ever had – today’s announcement is another huge step forward.”
In related news, the Metropolitan Council on May 26, 2010 approved light rail on the 14-mile Southwest Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, taking an important next step toward building the region’s third light rail line.
At the same time the Council approved the “locally preferred alternative” along the Kenilworth-Opus-Golden Triangle alignment, it amended the region’s 2030 Transportation Policy Plan to include LRT as the mode of choice in the corridor, making the project eligible for federal funding.
The LRT running through the ethnic corridor on University Avenue has drawn concerns from local businesses that fear impact of construction on their business. There are also concerns about the impact of the finished LRT on business with the reduction of parking, property taxes and whether these businesses will see the benefits that the downtowns stand to gain.
In January, 2010, group of residents and business owners of the former Rondo neighborhood filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council and the Federal Transit Administration concerning the impact that light rail will have on the community.
The lawsuit filed last month by Thomas DeVincke, an attorney with Bonner & Borhart, LLP, states that the group is not opposed to light rail altogether but want the project to be a true collaboration that benefits the corridor as much as the riders coming through their neighborhoods.
Va-Megn Thoj (Va-Meng Thao), executive director, Asian Economic Development Association (aeda-mn.org), together with Oakland–based National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, and Senior Policy Analyst Gen Fujioka, filed a Title VI Environmental Justice complaint of concerned Asian businesses and organization of St. Paul, with the Federal Transit Administration, Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. and its Chicago regional office in October, 2009.
The complaint included a CAPACD study of the FEIS for the Central Corridor Light Rail project in St. Paul, Minnesota. It documents “Material Omissions and Deficiencies of the Twin Cities Light Rail Project Environmental Justice Analysis,” regarding the project.
Thoj said AEDA did not have the resources to consider the lawsuit option, and said that although the Asian community does not have the history of Rondo in the neighborhood, that everyone would benefit from their work.
The FTA has since ensured the addition of three LRT stations at Lexington, Hamline and Dale, which had been excluded from the Metro Council’s Cost Effectiveness Index to remain competitive on the federal transportation project list. Thoj said project funding is determined by ridership and travel time formulas and that the three stations were only possible with the CEI was changed by the federal government.
AEDA supports the three stations as necessary for community and business access to mass transportation.
The complaint also concerned the impact of the project on small businesses during the construction and after during operation. It states that small minority owned businesses would be adversely impacted because of the construction.
In addition to calling for impact mitigation to assist businesses to survive during construction and operation, they are also working on zoning and tax issues to keep big box chains from coming in and displacing the small businesses.
The City of Saint Paul has also recently announced a University Avenue parking program to provide forgivable loans to business and property owners to improve their off-street parking lots.
St. Paul has initiated a Neighborhood Commercial Parking Pilot Program to help business and property owners prepare for the loss of parking with light rail on the University Avenue commercial corridor. The Met Council has identified 11 critical areas in a parking mitigation report. All University Avenue businesses will be eligible to apply for mitigation funds. Priority will be given to those identified as part of the eleven critical areas.