The Southwest light-rail line cleared an important milestone Wednesday when the federal government authorized the project to enter the engineering phase.

The approval by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) means Metro Transit staff can prepare bid documents for heavy construction, which is scheduled to begin next year.

The $1.9 billion line will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie with stops in St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka along the way. The 14.5-mile line is expected to begin passenger service in 2021.

"We continue full steam ahead on the Southwest LRT project," said Metropolitan Council Chairman Adam Duininck. "The continued confidence and support from the FTA underscores this project's strength as an efficient and effective way to connect people with jobs and expand opportunities in our region."

The FTA cleared the project's environmental review this year. Planners shored up $145 million in local funding in September after state lawmakers failed to fund 10 percent of the project. Met Council officials say they will now apply for a $928 million FTA grant covering half the project's capital cost in February, with approval expected in July.

An invitation for bids will begin for the electrical power, signaling and communications systems in the spring, and for the operations and maintenance facility midyear. The Met Council could begin awarding contracts as early as June, with private utility relocations occurring in the spring before heavy construction.

More than 230 contractors attended an open house this month that featured details on the project. Project Director Jim Alexander said the work will create about 7,500 construction jobs.

The project has long been controversial among some residents, especially those who oppose its route through the Kenilworth corridor, a popular recreation area for pedestrians and bicyclists in Minneapolis. A group of residents called the Lakes and Parks Alliance sued the Met Council in 2014, challenging the project on environmental grounds. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, is pending.