Worst of Central Corridor light-rail work to end soon

University Avenue businesses hope for the best as disruptive construction wraps up and the project moves to its finishing phase.

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Central Corridor light-rail line construction at University and Western Avenues in St. Paul last June.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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The dirty, noisy and disruptive construction work on the Central Corridor light-rail line between St. Paul and Minneapolis will end completely by the end of the month, spelling relief for many businesses and commuters.

With new streets and sidewalks laid, store owners are grappling with how to rebound from months of snarled traffic that sapped their business.

"We're relieved," said Ne Dao, owner of Ha Tien Market on University Avenue near Western Avenue. The market and deli lost about half of its daily business, forcing Dao to cut employees' hours, stop ordering dry goods inventory and halve the store's fresh produce orders. Three employees quit.

Customers found it difficult to find the store amid the clogged traffic, she said. And when they did, finding a place to park was difficult after on-street parking was eliminated. "[Customers] told me they drove by four or five times and they couldn't get in," Dao said.

Putting the finishing touches on the $957 million project next year should be far less disruptive to businesses and commuters, said Mark Fuhrmann, program director of New Starts rail projects for Metro Transit. Crews will string miles of overhead electrical wires and underground cable, install station art, build the operations and maintenance facility in St. Paul's Lowertown, work on the signaling and communications system and test the light-rail vehicles. The rail line along the 10-mile corridor is expected to be open for business in 2014.

Work on the project in 2012 went more smoothly than the previous year after changes were made to minimize the length of disruptions and better inform businesses about them, Fuhrmann said.

For example, much of the work in 2011 was done in one-mile increments. But the contractor sometimes didn't have the equipment or crews to handle it, Fuhrmann said. "So you had areas where they tore off the pavement and then they disappeared for one or two weeks," he said. "That wasn't well received."

This year, crews worked on shorter segments of five to six blocks, Fuhrmann said.

Another change was closing smaller intersections to allow crews to get the work done faster, he said.

Those changes along with a mild winter last year allowed crews to get a one-month head start on this year's construction, Fuhrmann said. By the end of December, the project will be more than 84 percent complete, ahead of a projected goal of 75 percent complete by 2013.

But some businesses have continued to struggle.

Before construction started, Hanna Tran's OMG Nails salon employed six people and served up to 28 clients a day. On Wednesday, Tran sat alone in the empty salon, chatting on the phone. She's the sole employee. If she's lucky, she'll see one or two clients a day.

"Everybody's gone," Tran said.

Her shop shares a small parking lot with three other businesses, but by the time everyone shows up for work in the mornings, there's little space left for customers. Four of her loyal customers were towed when they parked in the wrong place during construction. They haven't been back since.

"That's a big problem," Tran said. "I don't know. Hopefully [the end of construction] will help, but we still lost parking."

University Avenue will be left with 175 on-street parking spaces after 975 spots were removed to make room for the light-rail line, say project planners, who say the avenue should still have sufficient parking. According to the project website, 560 on-street spaces are available on nearby cross streets within a block of the corridor, along with 15,300 nearby off-street parking spaces.

Some shop owners are hopeful.

Dao said they are using the slow period to renovate the market and deli, hoping to attract new customers while impressing old ones.

Tiffany Yang, whose family owns May's Market, said they hope to draw new customers from the light-rail line.

"I really hope [business] will be better with the light-rail," Yang said.

cxiong@startribune.com • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788

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