The Southwest light-rail line cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday that will allow construction to begin on the $2 billion project this winter.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has notified the Metropolitan Council that it will likely pay for close to half the cost of the nearly 15-mile line linking downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie — the biggest public works project in state history.

Passenger service could start in 2023.

The FTA’s notice means the Met Council can begin spending local money to start the project with the expectation that federal money will be available later for reimbursement. The notice, called a “letter of no prejudice,” is usually a sign that the entire $929 million federal grant will be forthcoming.

“This is a big moment,” said an ebullient Alene Tchourumoff, chairwoman of the Met Council at a news conference Wednesday. “This is two decades of work.”

Tchourumoff was joined by outgoing Hennepin County Commissioner and longtime transit advocate Peter McLaughlin, who said: “This is a day we’ve been waiting for for a long, long time. It’s hard to overstate the action today.”

Without federal help, it’s unlikely the Southwest line could be built. So far, some $293 million in state and local money has been used to pay for design and engineering.

The Met Council is expected to award the $799 million construction bid Thursday to Lunda/C.S. McCrossan, the only firm left after the bidding process dragged on for more than a year.

Transit planners have long argued that Southwest, an extension of the Green Line, will prove a critical cog in the Twin Cities’ public transportation network as the metro area’s population grows.

“This news is long awaited and hard earned,” said Gov. Mark Dayton, in a statement. “The Southwest light rail project is a critical economic development project for the people of Minnesota. When complete, it will improve many thousands of lives from Eden Prairie to north Minneapolis. It will create new jobs, reduce highway congestion, and better connect Minnesotans to one another.”

The route’s 16 stations in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie will touch major employment centers in the southwestern suburbs. The council says there are about 64,300 jobs within a half mile of the proposed stations and close to 127,000 in downtown Minneapolis. By 2035, those figures are expected to increase to 80,900 and 145,300, respectively.

Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said, “Right now, 40 percent of employees in downtown Minneapolis get to work using transit, relieving pressure on our roadways and making our city a more attractive place for businesses. That number will certainly grow when [Southwest] is up and running.”

Years of challenges

Over the years, the project has faced strident opposition, ranging from residents who live near the project in Minneapolis to Republican lawmakers at the State Capitol who say it’s a waste of money. As recently as 2012, the price tag of Southwest was $1.25 billion.

A citizens’ group called the Lakes and Park Alliance sued the council in 2014, alleging the project violated federal environmental laws. But a federal judge threw out the legal challenge, which has since been appealed.

“We’re disappointed,” said Lakes and Parks Alliance Spokeswoman Mary Pattock, regarding the funding news Wednesday. “It’s precipitous, because they don’t know now how our lawsuit will turn out. They may have to stop in their tracks and start over again.”

Project planners have also tussled with freight railroads that will share part of the line’s path to the suburbs.

Last summer, the council reached an $18.5 million agreement with Glencoe-based Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which will share the Kenilworth corridor with light-rail trains. The railroad then dropped a federal lawsuit it had filed.

Last year, the council reached another agreement with BNSF Railway, which demanded that a concrete wall separate light-rail and freight trains along a short stretch of the route west of Target Field.

More recently, the bidding process to construct the line has been marred by delays. The council rejected four bids in September 2017, ranging from $797 million to $1.08 billion to build the line because they were “non- responsive.”

By May, new bids from two contractors were higher than the first round. The project was still expected to be awarded Aug. 1. But that was delayed until Sept. 30, and then until Thursday.

Construction ahead

Heavy construction is expected to occur between 2019 and 2022, creating some 7,500 jobs with an estimated $350 million in total payroll.

The FTA has never issued a “letter of no prejudice” without following through with grant money for transit projects across the country, according to Tchourumoff.

The existing Green Line, which links the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, was issued nine such letters, permitting the project to move forward before receiving its federal grant in 2011. The Green Line began passenger service in 2014.

McLaughlin, who was involved in planning the Blue Line, the region’s first light-rail project, said “these projects are always messy. … These things are hard to do, but the fact of the matter is that it’s worth it.”