All aboard! The Blue Line light rail extension is moving ahead

Construction on the line could begin next year.

The Blue Line Extension light rail project took a major step forward this week.

The project (also known as the Bottineau line) got federal approval to begin the engineer phase, the Metropolitan Council said Thursday. This means staff can start finalizing the actual designs for the 13-mile light rail line.

It would run from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis, through north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park. This approval was important to keep the project on track for the start of construction next year.

The total project is expected to cost $1.5 billion – and it still needs to get the rest of its funding. How will it do that? The Metropolitan Council says it has secured all but 10 percent of the local funding it needs, and will apply for a federal grant this fall that will pay for 49 percent of the capital costs associated with the project – that's about $753 million.

If all that happens, the Blue Line Extension could carry its first passengers in 2021.

The Blue Line Extension's federal approval comes a month after the Green Line Extension (also known as the Southwest Light Rail line, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie) got federal approval to begin the engineering phase. The Met Council hopes to get federal funding approved for the Green Line Extension this summer so it can start construction later this year.

More people are taking public transit

These approvals come at a time when even more people in the Twin Cities are turning to public transportation to get around.

Ridership on Metro Transit's buses and rail lines topped 82.6 million in 2016, a news release says. That's about 4 percent less than the 2015's record ridership. But Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb says ridership has gone up nine of the past 11 years, which shows sustained growth that the Twin Cities hasn't seen for a generation.

Officials estimate the Blue Line Extension will give people a way to get to 155,000 jobs along the line and in downtown Minneapolis when it opens in 2021. And that number is expected to go up to 180,000 by 2035.

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