Federal funds for Central Corridor may be a week awayby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Twin Cities transportation officials believe a pivotal piece of federal financing for the Central Corridor light rail project will fall into place next week.
The Metropolitan Council says the long-awaited so-called full funding grant agreement is expected, but not in hand. The federal money will virtually ensure that the state's largest public works project will be built.
A Central Corridor spokeswoman says the full funding grant agreement is expected by next Tuesday.
Federal Transit Administration officials say they're still examining details of the environmental review and won't comment.
Peter McLaughlin, the chair of the Counties Transit Improvement Board and a Hennepin County commissioner, said he's convinced the agreement will happen.
"That will be the federal commitment, the binding federal commitment, to provide half the money for the Central Corridor project," said McLaughlin.
The federal portion of the $954 million light rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis is $477 million.
Assuming the federal funding is approved, McLaughlin said next week's agreement will arrive just as an advance of local money is about to run out.
"The Counties Transit Improvement Board and the Ramsey and Hennepin regional railroad authorities and the state had fronted money ... through the end of April," McLaughlin said. "So this is coming in a very timely way."
Central Corridor planners say they're spending $2 million a day on the project.
The local funding partners agreed to advance Central Corridor construction funds because of delays in reaching a funding agreement with the federal government.
The project is controversial.
Three lawsuits directed at the Metropolitan Council by the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio and by a coalition of St. Paul residents and businesses illustrate the concerns.
The U's lawsuit over concerns about electromagnetic interference and vibrations on research equipment is mostly settled, and University of Minnesota Vice President Kathleen O'Brien said talks on details are continuing in a timely fashion.
A spokesman for MPR said there's still a disagreement with the Met Council on noise and vibration issues, and no talks are underway at this point.
And a federal judge mostly ruled against the neighbors' and business owners' lawsuit but agreed the environmental review of the Central Corridor project was deficient, and ordered a closer look at the impact.
Should any issue cause federal officials to put off the full funding grant agreement, local officials have said they don't have a plan at this point to keep money flowing.
And it's easy to see where the money is going along a one-mile stretch of University Avenue at Raymond in St. Paul.
Heavy equipment has removed two of University's four lanes and scooped out about four feet of earth below.
Half the avenue is still open to traffic.
But all that Cafe Biaggio owner Shari Breed has left is sidewalk.
Breed says all the on-street parking is gone forever and a seven-foot high cyclone fence abuts the sidewalk.
"There's no provision for any kind of a park and ride or anything really," said Breed. "I don't know what the objective of the light rail was, was it go from downtown to downtown and what about all of us in between here."
Still, Breed says so far, business is generally good.
She's told the excavation in front of her business will be done in July.
Next week's anticipated full funding grant agreement guarantees the federal government's role in the project.
But Counties Transit Improvement Board chairman Peter McLaughlin points out that whether the money arrives in a timely fashion is not guaranteed.
"They don't guarantee the precise pace at which the monies would be available but they've always been good for monies under the full funding grant agreement," McLaughlin said. "The budget deal that was struck just a week and half ago between the Congress and the president, there was a small nick ... But the nick does not hurt the appropriation for 2011 for Central Corridor so the significant federal money for this project is going to start to flow."
Local officials are planning a ceremony Tuesday to mark the expected announcement of the federal funding agreement.
- Morning Edition, 04/20/2011, 8:24 a.m.