By Bill Hudson

HOPKINS, Minn. (WCCO) — After years of heated debate, costly litigation and federal hurdles, a major public milestone was met. With scoops of sand and wide smiles, the long-awaited extension of the Metro Green Line is moving forward.

The Southwest Light Rail Transit project held a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday, paving the way for actual construction to begin early next year.

“You got to hang with this stuff or it doesn’t happen,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a longtime proponent of the project. “There’s always a reason to say no, always a reason to give up and we didn’t and that’s why we’re making a giant leap forward here today.”

McLaughlin brought with him a ceremonial shovel used at the 2001 groundbreaking of the now popular Hiawatha light rail line. In the 17 years since, mass transit supporters like him have pushed a vision of an interconnected Twin Cities metropolitan region.

The 14.5-mile extension of the Green Line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul will stretch from Eden Prairie to Target Field. Within seven years of its completion in 2023, it is projected to carry an estimated 30,000 daily riders.

The line will serve five suburban communities as it runs through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina and Eden Prairie.

“There are three Fortune 500 companies along the route, but even more than that, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of jobs along the way,” Sen. Tina Smith said.

Communities along the route hope the $2 billion investment spurs economic growth, housing and new businesses.

On a day where smiles ruled, even SWLRT’s detractors got a pat on the back.

Outgoing 5th District Congressman and Attorney General-elect, Rep. Keith Ellison, gave credit to opponents, too.

“They made the line better by challenging the orthodoxy, by saying what about the water, what about this or what about that. They made us sharpen our case,” Ellison said.

Actual construction is expected to take over three years on what will be the state’s largest public infrastructure project ever.

The SWLRT won’t be ready to carry passengers between Eden Prairie and Target Field until 2023.

It is expected that the federal transit grants will pay $929 million or roughly half the line’s total cost.

Bill Hudson