The first light-rail trains linking the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis will rumble along University Avenue beginning June 14, doubling the size and scope of the Twin Cities’ 10-year-old light-rail system.

“This is just such an exciting day, I don’t even feel cold,” said Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh, who announced the long-awaited start-up date Wednesday outside Union Depot in downtown St. Paul as windchills dipped below zero.

Transit officials are counting on balmier weather June 14, when the kickoff weekend for the Green Line, formerly called the Central Corridor, will be marked with celebrations and free rides at light-rail stations along the 11-mile route.

The project, which cost $957 million — half of it supplied by federal funds, with the balance divided among state, regional, county and city governments — includes 18 new stations in addition to five to be shared with the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis.

By 2030, the Met Council projects, more than 40,000 people will be boarding the Green Line each weekday. The bus lines that now travel the same stretch, Routes 16 and 50, carried 24,000 riders on an average weekday in 2010.

The June starting date beats the federal deadline for completion by nearly six months and also ensures that fans can take the Green Line July 15 to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Target Field.

With 98 percent of construction complete, it looks as though the Green Line’s opening will avoid the confusion that marked the start 10 years ago of the Hiawatha line, now the Blue Line. That opening date was pushed back five months to help fund the state’s deficit. The line eventually opened in two phases, eight months apart.

Private investment

Officials heralded the economic development promised by the Green Line, which will link the two downtowns and the University of Minnesota via University Avenue. The Met Council estimates that the line so far has yielded $1.7 billion in private development already built or still to come.

“This is really going to pay off,” Haigh said.

However, about 30 percent of the Green Line development counted by the Met Council also is along the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis. The analysis is mostly based on published reports in daily, weekly and business newspapers.

Haigh said that the project is on budget, but she expects little money to be left over.

Many businesses along University were forced to close or lay off employees during construction, when customer access was restricted. The light-rail line removed 85 percent of University Avenue’s on-street parking spaces.

Officials say that customers now can either take the train or park nearby on cross streets and in off-street lots. Still, some business owners are unsure whether the Green Line will build their bottom lines.

“I’m hoping that people will hop on, so they can see our store and stop by,” said Ne Dao, who owns Ha Tien Grocery near the Western Avenue station. After losing business and having to cut employees’ hours during the height of construction, she said her store now is “OK … we are doing fine.”

Bruce Delles, who owns Twin Cities Reptiles, was ambivalent even though his store near the Raymond Avenue station has largely rebounded from the losses he suffered during construction.

“Am I looking forward to it? No. Am I against it? No. It is what it is,” he said. “Do I hope it will increase my business? Yes. Do I think it will? I don’t know. The proof is in the pudding.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a key transit advocate who chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, on Wednesday called the Green Line “a transformative investment” that will “re-twin the Twin Cities” by bringing light rail to St. Paul. He said that it’s cleaned up University Avenue, which “has not looked as good as it does today.”

Work left to do

The only significant remaining construction on the line is in downtown St. Paul, where work is wrapping up on a traction-power substation and the stairway-elevator at Central Station. Track switches also are being adjusted.

In the five months before the line opens, traffic signals will be checked, the communications system will be vetted and overhead wires will be tested to make sure they properly conduct the electric current propelling the trains. New cars will be tested too.

Metro Transit already has received 39 of the 59 new cars it ordered from Siemens, a light-rail vehicle manufacturer in Sacramento, Calif. Twelve will go to the Blue Line, which uses mostly cars made 10 years ago by Canadian-based Bombardier; the remaining 47 will go to the Green Line.

In about a month, Met Council spokeswoman Laura Baenen said, regular weekday testing of the new cars will begin. “We will start seeing light-rail vehicles being tested as frequently as they will be in operations … every 10 minutes,” she said.

The Green Line will be maintained and operated by 177 new hires, 61 of them rail operators who are being trained. Maintenance workers will be based at the Green Line’s new Lowertown facility, adjacent to the Saints’ ballpark site.

The last of the public art at the 18 new stations also will be installed in coming months, including a large black granite wheel at the Union Depot station representing the Great Northern Railroad.

“We want to have everything finished so as not to disrupt commuters” when the line opens, Baenen said.

Once the Green Line begins operations, nearby bus routes will be adjusted. The rail line will replace the Route 50 bus, which travels the same stretch; popular Route 16, which runs down University Avenue, will run slightly less often. The Interstate 94 express bus will stop running on weekends and weekday evenings.

But Metro Transit also is adding Route 83 up and down Lexington Parkway to link up with the new train and extending Route 65 on Dale Street to Grand Avenue.

The Met Council’s public education campaign, which began last year, will continue to reinforce safety tips around the tracks. The Central Corridor website has a safety page with videos and information on how to navigate the line.

“It’s going to be easy and safe to ride,” Haigh said, “and people are going to want to ride it.”