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Ceremony celebrates start of work on transportation hub in downtown Duluth

Duluth Mayor Don Ness speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Multimodal Transportation Center on Thursday afternoon below Michigan Street in the lot between Second and Third avenues west. An artist's view of the new center is at lower left. (Bob King / / 2
Duluth Transit Authority staff lift shovelfuls of dirt during the groundbreaking ceremonies on Thursday afternoon for the new Multimodal Transporation Center. (Bob King / )2 / 2

Ground was broken Thursday on a project Duluth city officials hope will change the way residents get around.

The Duluth Multimodal Transportation Center — scheduled for completion in late 2015 — will centralize the city and regional bus systems, accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, and further connect businesses and destinations in downtown Duluth, planners say.

 “We’re proud to bring this project to the community,” said Dennis Jensen, general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority. “It’s a long time coming.”

The $29 million project includes renovations of several downtown skywalks, a new Duluth Police Department substation, and a new drive-thru Wells Fargo bank.

Planned for Michigan Street between Second and Third avenues west, the transit facility will consist of four levels. The first will be for contract parking, the second — Michigan Street level — for bus operations, and the third and fourth for hourly and weekly parking.

The facility will connect buses from the Duluth Transit Authority, Jefferson Lines and Arrowhead Transit.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness touted the project as a “massive improvement for our downtown,” in a  speech during the groundbreaking ceremony.

The project was first discussed by city and business leaders in 2004, but Jensen said progress was slowed by concerns over its location and funding.

Planners considered a location on Fourth Avenue West and estimated the project at $45 million, but funding ultimately fell through. They decided on the site between Second and Third avenues west last year after meeting with a private group that was planning to demolish a parking garage being operated on the site.

“We started talking about if there were common interests there,” Jensen said. “And there certainly were. The decision to actually locate it here was made in a week.”

But Jensen said funding was the biggest issue.

The late U.S. Rep. James Oberstar had made funding the project a priority, but that was interrupted when Oberstar was defeated by former U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack in 2010.

Ness said a large chunk of the money that ended up funding the project originally was intended for another project in another state, but Oberstar proposed the money go to Duluth after the other project was abandoned.

“That’s what made it happen,” Ness said. “He was always looking out for the best interest of Duluth.”

A majority of the money — more than $16 million — comes from the Federal Transportation Administration, while another $6 million comes from state bonding and another $5.4 million comes from the Duluth Transit Authority budget.

Selective demolition is expected to begin in the next few weeks.

Contractors estimate the project will create more than 1,000 jobs over the next year and a half.