Work on Richfield’s long-awaited 77th Street underpass should be underway soon, said the legislator who led the fight for the project.

Rep. Linda Slocum, DFL-Richfield, said she expects the Minnesota Department of Transportation to release about $2.5 million for initial design and engineering studies by late February or early March.

Richfield has been waiting more than 20 years for a highway underpass that will open up new development in the southeast corner of the city. The proposed underpass would continue 77th Street underneath Cedar Avenue, connecting that part of Richfield to the airport and the Mall of America.

Last year, the Legislature approved a $24.4 million package covering both the Richfield underpass and a new interchange at Hwy. 10 and County Road 83 in Anoka County. MnDOT will make the final decision on allocating money between the two projects. Slocum said she hopes the underpass will get $12 million to $15 million of the pot.

More than a dozen developers have approached the city of Richfield in recent months with proposals for the Cedar Avenue corridor, city officials say. But the proposals all hinge on completion of the underpass. Slocum said local residents shouldn’t worry about the final outcome.

“It is my belief, and I have been assured, that the underpass will happen,” she said, citing personal talks this week with Gov. Mark Dayton and Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle. “There is not a single chance in the world that I will drop this ball.”

The area has “a tremendous amount of development potential,” said John Stark, Richfield’s community development director. “I don’t know that there are many places in the Twin Cities where you can be in either downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul in 10 minutes.”

At a joint meeting this week of the Richfield City Council and the city Planning Commission, officials heard a proposal for an ambitious development that aims to create what promoters called “the Silicon Valley of the food business” along the roughly 2-mile stretch of Cedar Avenue between Crosstown Hwy. 62 and Interstate 494.

A potential sticking point could be land acquisition in the area. While the city of Richfield over the past decade has bought up much of the land along Cedar Avenue, several key parcels in private hands on the I-494 frontage would be needed for large-scale development.

The city can’t use eminent domain to acquire land for private development, Stark said, and prices in the area are going up.

“There have been some recent property sales along 77th Street farther to the west that have driven up prices,” he said. “The land along 494 certainly isn’t cheap.”