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Construction resumes soon on LRT project

The second season of heavy construction on the $957-million Central Corridor light-rail transit line will begin as soon as March 1.

Light rail transit construction on University Ave. near Hwy 280 during the fall of 2011.

Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter and the word “snow” suddenly is appearing in our weather forecasts, but there are definite signs of spring.

One clear indication: the Metropolitan Council announced Wednesday that the second season of heavy construction on the $957-million Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line will begin as soon as March 1.

This year, construction on University Avenue will shift to the street and sidewalks east of Hamline Avenue in St. Paul, as well as to the University Avenue segment between Emerald Street and 29th Avenue in Minneapolis. Work also will resume in downtown St. Paul and on the University of Minnesota campus.

On most of University Avenue, one lane of traffic will be open in each direction throughout construction. However, some streets and intersections along the corridor will be closed to traffic, including Cedar Street in downtown St. Paul and Washington Avenue on the university’s East Bank campus. The project has posted more details about construction plans on its website.

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By the end of the construction season, the streets, sidewalks and tracks should be largely complete for the entire 10-mile length of the LRT line. In addition, the structural elements should be in place for all 18 stations and the first of 47 light rail cars should be delivered.

“It’s really going to look like a railroad by the end of 2012,” says Mark Fuhrmann, director of rail projects for the Met Council.

At the end of 2011, Fuhrmann says, the project was 45 percent complete and $407 million had been expended. By the end of 2012, it will be about 75 percent complete.

The work remaining in 2013 should be much less disruptive for residents and businesses along the corridor. It will involve installing catenary poles and electrical wiring that power the trains, as well as power substations, communications and signal equipment. The goal is to complete testing and begin passenger service in 2014.

Mark Fuhrmann
Courtesy of the Met CouncilMark Fuhrmann

The construction work last year triggered a torrent of complaints from both residents and businesses that Fuhrmann and the project staff have attempted to address over the last several months.

Many complaints

Many of the complaints centered on Walsh Construction, the Chicago-based firm that won the contract for the seven miles of the line within the boundaries of St. Paul. Ames/C.S. McCrossan Construction won the contract for Minneapolis. Walsh previously had built LRT projects in Dallas, Phoenix and Charlotte, but this was its first foray into Minnesota.

In December, Fuhrmann said he and project deputy Rich Rovang called on top executives of Walsh to discuss the shortcomings of their project team and their failure to respond to complaints from the community.

“They were alarmed – they did not like what they heard,” Fuhrmann says. “They committed to be more responsive, to be more in tune with business and community needs.”

One concrete response: Walsh hired a former engineer from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to serve as a full-time community outreach coordinator and liaison – to make sure that community complaints get addressed promptly.

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‘Lessons learned’

The Met Council’s project team also held a series of meetings with project partners, local officials and members of the community to identify problems and “lessons learned” in the first year of heavy construction.

Among the changes planned for this year:

  • Streets will not be ripped up until crews are ready to begin construction.
  • Crews will fully close many intersections, rather than keeping some lanes open, so the work can be completed more expeditiously.
  • Greater attention will be paid to providing adequate pedestrian and vehicle access to all businesses, and signage directing people how to access those businesses.
  • Signs will be posted along the corridor with the construction “hotline” number and the project’s outreach staff will be beefed up.

“Communication is key when you have 10 miles of construction and 1,400 businesses impacted,” Fuhrmann says. “If they have a problem, we want to hear about it.”

Kari Canfield, president of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, says members of her organization have participated in meetings with the project staff to discuss their experiences last year and “we feel our concerns have been addressed.”

Canfield says her members also are looking forward to stepped-up efforts to encourage patronage of Central Corridor businesses during construction.

Earlier this month, the Met Council authorized a contract for up to $1.2 million with Mod & Company of Minneapolis to develop and implement a business marketing plan. It will build on “Discover Central Corridor” marketing efforts undertaken previously by the Midway and St. Paul Area Chambers of Commerce.

The council, the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and several philanthropic partners also will continue dispensing zero-interest, forgivable loans  of up to $20,000 for small businesses with less than $2 million in sales to compensate them for revenue lost during construction.

A total of $4 million has been made available for the program. Thus far, 99 loans totaling more than $1.3 million have been made to 82 businesses, according to Nancy Homans, policy director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Applications from businesses affected by this year’s wave of construction will be accepted 60 days after the start of work, Homans says.

Ahead of schedule

Despite some bumps in the road, work on the Central Corridor line is slightly ahead of schedule and well within budget.

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The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is footing half of the project cost, required the Met Council to budget $155 million – or nearly 20 percent – for contingencies. This necessitated a considerable amount of belt-tightening early in the planning process, but with the understanding that some unused contingency money might be used to add back features that were trimmed from the budget.

Under the FTA’s system, the contingency funds gradually are released for eligible purposes as the project reaches various milestones.

Thus far, Fuhrmann says, $22 million of the contingency fund has been used to meet unexpected problems encountered in the field and another $20 million has been tapped to pay for “project requirements” that couldn’t be accurately estimated in the original budget.

In addition, $23 million has been used to pay for enhancements to the project – $20 million of it to add 16 rail cars to the original 31-car order. This will permit the operation of three-car trains during peak periods, rather than the two-car trains as originally envisioned.

But that still leaves the project $90 million in uncommitted contingency funds – or $90 million below the original $957 million budget. That’s a nice cushion as the project nears the half-way point.

Fuhrmann credits the council’s local funding partners – the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), Ramsey and Hennepin counties, and the state – for helping to keep they project on track for completion in 2014.

Before the FTA committed last April to provide 50-percent federal funding, CTIB, the counties and the state advanced their share so the project would not miss a construction season. The commitment “was significant and they stepped up to provide it,” Fuhrmann says.