The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Board of Directors on Thursday certified the Final Environmental Impact Statement/Report (EIS/EIR) for the $1.37 billion Regional Connector Transit Corridor Project, a priority transit project that will connect light rail lines through downtown L.A.

“Today’s approval by the board represents a major milestone in Metro’s ongoing efforts to deliver on the promise it made to Measure R voters for greater regional mobility,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also serves as Metro Board chair. “The Regional Connector project is one of the most important transit improvements we can build to make the entire Metro Rail system function more efficiently. Its construction will quicken transit travel times, provide more reliable service, create thousands of jobs, and bring billions of dollars of economic benefits to our county.”

The board also adopted Metro’s Locally Preferred Alternative, a 1.9-mile underground light rail line that includes new stations at First/Central, Second/Broadway, and Second/Hope.

In addition, the board approved the following design refinements:

• Relocating the Little Tokyo/Arts District underground station to minimize property required and eliminate the cut-and-cover segment on Second Street in Little Tokyo originally required for construction.

• Launching a tunnel boring machine (TBM) from the northeast corner of First and Alameda streets, the Mangrove property formerly known as the Nikkei Center development, instead of Second Street.

The project is partially funded with $160 million in Measure R local sales tax funds approved by voters in 2008.The remainder of funding is identified through a combination of state funding sources that include proceeds from the California High-Speed Rail Bond and a 50 percent requested match from the federal New Starts program.

The project was included in the Obama Administration’s proposed FY13 budget to initially receive $31 million. The funding proposed requires congressional approval.

Representatives from Little Tokyo attended the board meeting. The Final EIR/EIS contains a mitigation plan to address concerns Little Tokyo has expressed about potential negative impacts that construction will have on residents and businesses.

Addressing the board, Mike Okamoto, Little Tokyo Community Council chair, said he was looking forward to working with Metro as the project progresses. Among issues to be resolved are a business interruption program, special shuttle services to provide access to Little Tokyo businesses, and marketing support.

“In the Final EIR/EIS, many of our concerns have been addressed, but we still need to work to make sure (of) the implementations of the mitigation plans,” said Okamoto. “I sincerely hope our community’s voices will be heard in a timely manner throughout the project and celebrate the grand opening together.”

The Regional Connector will connect the Metro Gold Line (Eastside and Pasadena) to the Metro Blue Line and future Expo Line, enabling passengers to travel from Montclair to Long Beach and from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica as a “one-seat ride.”

By providing continuous through service among these lines, the Regional Connector will improve access to both local and regional destinations. The project will minimize the need for transfers, reducing one-way light rail trip times across the county by 10 to 20 minutes or more.

The three new downtown stations would provide access to 88,200 passengers, including some 17,700 new transit riders. The design would not preclude construction of a station at Fifth and Flower as a future, separate project.

Following certification of the Final EIS/EIR, Metro will continue value engineering to make certain the project is within the Metro Board-approved budget. Metro also will initiate station design meetings with the community and initiate a Construction Community Relations Program.

Concurrently, the board will seek issuance of a Record of Decision for the project by the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA’s environmental clearance is required for Metro to award a construction contract. Construction could begin in 2013.

The board’s action caps a five-year environmental review process that originally screened more than 37 project alternatives. Over that time period, the project team has received and incorporated substantial community input in developing its recommended alignment and stations through this highly developed, dense downtown L.A. area. The project area is the largest regional employment center in the county.