SW Corridor, Northern Lights Transit Projects Progress

Federal authorities have given permission for engineering work to begin on the downtown Minneapolis-to-Eden Prairie light-rail line and approved a route for the proposed Twin Cities-to-Duluth passenger train.

Two planned transit projects in Minnesota have recently taken major steps forward.

Federal authorities have given the green light for engineering work to begin on the Southwest Corridor light-rail line and separately approved a route for the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger train between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

The Southwest Corridor is the region's third light-rail transit project. The 15.8-mile light-rail line will connect downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, stopping through several suburban cities, including Minnetonka, Hopkins, and St. Louis Park.

The Metropolitan Council said Friday that the Federal Transit Administration granted the necessary approval for the project's engineering work to kick off, a move that represents a major step toward obtaining matching federal funds.

Construction on the line is scheduled to begin in 2014, and it's expected to begin running in late 2017 or in 2018.

According to a Friday memo sent from the FTA to Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh, the project includes the construction of 17 new light-rail stations, 15 park-and-ride facilities that together have 3,500 spaces, 26 light-rail vehicles, and a new rail maintenance facility.

Ridership is projected to reach 30,000 each weekday by 2030-comparable to the number of people now riding the Hiawatha light-rail line, according to the Met Council.

The project's price tag is estimated to be $1.25 billion-half of which the Met Council hopes to obtain in federal funds, the FTA said. The remaining 50 percent is expected to come from the Counties Transit Improvement Board's five-county sales tax (30 percent), the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (10 percent), and the State of Minnesota (10 percent). (The Counties Transit Improvement Board comprises five member counties-Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington-and uses a quarter-cent sales tax and a $20 motor vehicle sales tax to invest in various transit projects.)

In other transit news, the Federal Rail Administration has approved a route for the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) passenger train that would connect Duluth and the Twin Cities. Approval was granted in July, and the NLX Passenger Rail Alliance announced the approval last week.

The 155-mile approved route uses existing BNSF Railway track along the Interstate 35 and Highway 65 corridors.

A $5 million federal grant awarded in May 2011 and a $3 million appropriation from the State of Minnesota will allow for preliminary engineering on the NLX to begin in spring 2012. Up to 80 percent of the project's total cost-now estimated to be between $650 million and $750 million-could be federally funded, according to the alliance.