The $532 million Gold Line bus rapid transit project in the east metro cleared a critical step Wednesday that's needed to secure millions in federal funding.

The 10-mile line between downtown St. Paul and Woodbury has been cleared by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to enter the engineering phase. That means the project's engineering team will complete the work needed to develop construction plans.

Passenger service now is expected to begin in 2024.

"This is a very important step," said Gold Line Project Director Christine Beckwith.

The FTA also afforded the project a "medium high" rating, which will help it qualify for a federal grant paying up to 45% of the $532 million cost to build the line. The remaining 55% would be funded by local sources.

The Gold Line would be Minnesota's first bus rapid transit line operating mostly within dedicated lanes, largely along the northern stretch of Interstate 94.

Five stops are planned in downtown St. Paul, including Union Depot, with service to the city's East Side and the suburbs of Maplewood, Landfall, Oakdale and Woodbury.

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Council said the cost of the project had increased by about $70 million to cover increased parking and development along the route. A $58 million park-and-ride facility and a Washington County service center were added at the Interstate 494 Station in Woodbury, the line's eastern terminus.

The changes were made after the FTA requested more parking for the project, as well as a $13 million contingency fund, which may or may not be used. Without those additions, the project would not have qualified for federal funding.

Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said in a news release that the Gold Line and other planned transit projects will help the region recover from the "pandemic-driven economic downturn.

"Our region is growing, and we need a reliable transit system to keep up with a growing economy," Zelle said. "Building out that system, connecting more people to jobs, education, shopping and entertainment, will stimulate even more growth."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @ByJanetMoore