The Gold Line, a $461 million bus-rapid transit project that will serve the east metro, cleared a key hurdle Tuesday after federal officials found the 10-mile line won't significantly affect the environment.

An environmental assessment of the line that will link downtown St. Paul with Woodbury, serving Oakdale, Maplewood and Landfall along the way, was cleared by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is expected to pay 45% of the cost to build it.

Passenger service is expected to begin in 2024.

The finding comes after two years of work by the Metropolitan Council and others that involved outreach to gauge community sentiment. More detailed design work will come next, so bids can be extended for construction, which should begin in 2022.

The Gold Line will be the state's first true bus-rapid transit line, with buses operating largely in dedicated lanes north of Interstate 94. Project Manager Christine Beckwith called the service "light rail on rubber tires. You won't even need a schedule; the bus will arrive every 10 to 15 minutes like light rail."

Transit planners say the line will provide access to some 95,000 jobs, including at corporate giant 3M in Maplewood. About 18% of the households along its route do not have cars.

"East-metro employers consistently say they and the people they want to hire need to be better connected by quality transit," said William Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a transit advocacy group.

"The Gold Line will be an important part of meeting that need," he said.

The 139-page environmental document notes the east metro suffers from congested roads and a lack of all-day transit service that also operates on nights and weekends.

"A successful transit project has to fit into the community it serves as seamlessly as possible," Met Council Chairman Charlie Zelle said in a statement. "We want to make sure the Gold Line improves the quality of life for people along the line."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 Twitter: @ByJanetMoore