Funding for the line, set to open in 2018, is still not guaranteed.
The Southwest Corridor light-rail project got some support from the White House Monday when President Obama pledged to speed up federal reviews needed to build the line between Minneapolis and major suburbs.
Obama instructed agencies to streamline environmental review for permits needed to build Southwest and transit projects in Ohio.
The decision could help Southwest make up for delays stemming from a dispute over awarding an engineering contract. Engineering work is now expected to start by the beginning of next year, about six months behind schedule.
The White House said speeding up federal permitting is "expected to shave several months off" work.
While the decision doesn't assure federal funding ultimately needed to build Southwest, its backers were buoyed by the announcement.
"It is very rewarding and encouraging that the project has the support at the very highest levels," said Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, the regional agency overseeing Southwest.
The Southwest light-rail line is scheduled to open in 2018 and cost $1.25 billion to build. Supporters are counting on the federal government for half of the money, with Twin Cities counties kicking in 40 percent and the state paying 10 percent.
The federal government is expected to make a decision on its share of funding after much of the other financing is in place.
So far the state has committed only $7 million of its $125 million share and Republican legislators critical of transit have resisted spending more.
But the project has the support of the Twin Cities business community, which sees the 15-mile line relieving congestion between Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, Eden Prairie and other southwest suburbs.
"In today's announcement, the White House confirms this is one of the most important transportation projects in the country and they're going to do everything they can to help move this project along as quickly as possible," said Judy Johnson, director of government affairs for the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce.
The White House called Southwest and the Ohio projects "nationally and regionally significant" and said it will announce accelerating more projects in coming weeks.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504