A group representing residents and businesses along University Avenue in St. Paul has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Metropolitan Council, alleging the agency has ignored potential negative effects of the planned Central Corridor light-rail line.

The complaint was filed with the Federal Transportation Administration, the same agency being asked to fund half of the $914 million project. A letter from the FTA dated May 27, 2009, to the group said an investigation is underway.

The Met Council has received questions from the FTA regarding the complaint and will answer them, council Chairman Peter Bell said Thursday. It's another in a series of disputes along the line.

Bell said this complaint could derail the project, but he doesn't anticipate that it will. "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to address many of the concerns that they have raised," he said.

The Central Corridor, in planning for 30 years, is expected to bring economic growth and revitalization to University Avenue, which has heavily transit-dependent and low-income areas, supporters say.

But with economic growth comes gentrification that will price out the people who live and work there, opponents say. It's reminiscent, they say, of the displacement of black families when Interstate 94 was built through the old Rondo neighborhood decades ago.

The group, Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee, comprises several organizations including the St. Paul Chapter of the NAACP, Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation and the Community Stabilization Project. "We have not been heard, have not been considered in this entire process from the very beginning," said Veronica Burt of the committee.

The complaint alleges the Met Council has not analyzed potential negative impacts on minority and low-income communities, identified such impacts or offered ways to lessen those impacts. It also alleges that the Met Council hasn't treated concerns by minority groups the same as other non-minority groups -- a complaint directed at how problems raised by Minnesota Public Radio and the University of Minnesota were addressed and resolved.

"This notion we've not somehow been in the community and listened does not have credibility," Bell said. "Not only have we done that, we have responded."

He pointed to several changes in the project that came from public input, such as relocating a station, adding crossings and fully rebuilding the road and sidewalks. He also noted that more than 1,100 public meetings have been held.

"To its credit, the Met Council has held plenty of meetings, there has been plenty of engagement," Burt said. "But in terms of substance behind it . . . there's a difference between appearances and substance."

According to the Met Council's preliminary environmental impact statement, there would be no disproportionate negative impacts on minority or low-income groups.

"This 'analysis' ignores the fact that the project's construction will increase property tax rates, result in substantial business interruption, eliminate parking for existing businesses and increase property values and attendant rates," wrote attorney Thomas DeVincke in a memo to the FTA. "Each of these impacts will be borne disproportionately by the minority community."

"Unfortunately, the complaint does accurately represent a set of concerns shared by a large number of people who live and work and own businesses along the line," said St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter III. "I think the concerns can be resolved if folks on both sides are willing to work together."

The real problem would be if the group's complaint caused the project to be delayed or derailed, Bell said. "Then of course the money would go out to the Southwest Corridor and Eden Prairie, and that would be a real environmental justice issue, in my mind."

Construction on the 11-mile line from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul is expected to begin next year and end in 2014.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148