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Twin Cities’ light rail project clears money hurdle

Bill Clements
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — The Metropolitan Council and other local agencies finally have the news they have been seeking: The Federal Transit Administration has sent to Congress the grant agreement for the Central Corridor light rail project.

The move launches a 60-day review various officials described as a courtesy, meaning Congress is expected to approve the grant agreement in early April.

That will let the FTA and the Met Council sign the agreement contract that guarantees the federal government will pay for half of the $957 million light rail project. Officials in Washington, D.C., had delayed delivery of the grant agreement several times, but it was not clear why.

The Central Corridor, the biggest public works project in Minnesota history, will connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis via an 11-mile route when it opens in 2014.

“It’s my understanding that … the FTA does not send these agreements to Congress unless they are fully satisfied there will be no changes to the documents,” said Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner who leads that county’s railroad authority and has pushed for the Central Corridor. “It’s a big deal.”

Groups representing small businesses on University Avenue supported the project getting federal money but urged the Met Council and FTA to analyze the effect construction will have on businesses. A federal judge ordered the analysis.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank ruled the Met Council and other builders of the Central Corridor did not adequately consider “lost business revenue as an adverse impact” on businesses in the Midway East section of the corridor.

Mark Fuhrmann, director of transit projects for the Met Council, said the supplemental analysis will proceed along with the 60-day congressional review of the grant agreement.

The Met Council has been working on a deeper analysis and possible mitigations since the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in January 2010, he said. But the supplemental work, Fuhrmann said, is not part of the grant agreement.

He said the Met Council is working with the city of St. Paul on to avoid or minimize the effect on businesses from construction in the next two years.

“All these documents were not part of the court record because they’ve been assembled since the lawsuit was filed a year ago,” Fuhrmann said.

In the next few days, he said, the Met Council will announce it is reaching out to and inviting all businesses along the Central Corridor route to a mid-February town hall meeting “so they can express more specifically to us what’s important to them.”

The businesses are paying close attention, said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, and Jack McCann, leader of the University Avenue Business Association.

Together, the organizations represent 370 of some 1,100 businesses along the corridor.

“If (project officials) are hoping to fast-track this in order to execute the full-funding grant agreement,” Thoj said, “then their priorities are misplaced and they are just replicating what they’ve done in the past with their top-down process — railroading this whole thing.”

McCann said the businesses have been urging Minnesota’s congressional delegation to treat the 60-day review as more than a courtesy.

“We don’t anticipate (Congress) stopping construction of the Central Corridor,” McCann said.

The announcement that the grant agreement is going to Congress is particularly good news for such Central Corridor project financing partners as the railroad authorities of Ramsey and Hennepin counties and the Counties Transit Improvement Board.

For transit projects in Minnesota, the FTA pays for 50 percent, the CTIB covers 30 percent, and the Ramsey and Hennepin counties’ regional railroad authorities and the state of Minnesota cover the final 20 percent.

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