The federal government on Thursday cleared the way for the Bottineau Blue Line light rail project to move into the engineering phase, a critical milestone for the $1.5 billion project.

The 13-mile line will connect Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park through north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale and Crystal. Passenger service is expected to begin in 2021.

Thursday's approval by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) means the Metropolitan Council can begin engineering work to prepare for construction in 2018.

"Our region has a strong reputation nationally for successfully delivering on transit projects," said Adam Duininck, Met Council chairman, in a statement.

The FTA is expected to pay 49 percent of the project's overall cost once local funding is shored up.

The balance would be paid by the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), Brooklyn Park, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, though this funding formula may change in the near future.

The CTIB is contemplating dissolution, a move that could lead to a higher transit tax for Hennepin County taxpayers. The sales tax, now at a quarter-cent, will help pay for projects like Bottineau as well as its sister project, Southwest light rail. Transit planners see the move as necessary because many Republican lawmakers are loath to fund LRT projects.

Met Council officials say Bottineau will create 6,500 construction jobs, resulting in $300 million in workers' payroll.

The Blue Line will continue from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. Connections downtown to the Green Line will link the route to downtown St. Paul or to Eden Prairie as well. Passengers will also be able to hop aboard the Northstar commuter rail at Target Field.

Bottineau will provide access to 155,000 jobs along the line and in downtown Minneapolis, a figure that is expected to grow to 180,000 by 2035.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752