UPDATED 11/19/12 3 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Transit Administration on Monday told leaders in Congress it will sign a $1.55 billion funding agreement for the Honolulu rail project, the third key hurdle cleared by the once-embattled system in less than three weeks.

The first hurdle was judicial; an environmental lawsuit was dismissed in part by a federal judge on Nov. 1. The second hurdle was electoral; anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano lost his bid for mayor on Nov. 6. The third hurdle is administrative, with the FTA sending notice to four congressional committees giving them the mandated 30 days notice before a deal is signed.

The notice was sent to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Senate Banking Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, the last of which is chaired by Hawaii’s Daniel K. Inouye. It was his office that broke the news Monday with a celebratory press release saying that “the path to this agreement with the federal government has not been easy.”

“This is an important step toward providing federal funding for the Honolulu Rail Transit project,” Inouye said in the joint press release from Hawaii’s four-member congressional delegation. “We have discussed and debated the merits of a rail line on the island of Oahu for the majority of my time in the Congress and I would like to thank Peter Rogoff and the Federal Transit Administration, President Obama, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for partnering with the City and County of Honolulu to build a system that will alleviate traffic congestion, lessen our dependence on imported fossil fuels and provide our residents, in particular those living in West Oahu, with a much needed alternative to driving.”

Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle was jubilant at a city press conference Monday afternoon announcing the news.

He and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Chief Daniel Grabauskas both sported wide grins.

They said they had no concerns that the amount will be any less than the $1.55 billion the city has been promised. They were also confident that there would be no problems actually securing a check from the feds.

For rail opponents, Carlisle had this message: “Rail is on the way. We’ve got the money. Get out of the way.”

The FTA confirmed that the notice was sent Monday and said Administrator Peter Rogoff signed the cover letter, but declined to provide a copy of the notice without a Freedom Of Information Act request.

The notification comes just days before a key deadline.

Under a spending bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in November 2011, Honolulu had until the end of this calendar year to sign a full funding grant agreement. If the project doesn’t reach that stage in time, the funding eligibility would expire. Thirty days notice from Monday means the earliest an FFGA could be signed is Dec. 19 — 12 days before the Dec. 31 deadline.

HART updated its financial plan in June and formally submitted the FFGA request. The funding deal fell behind the original schedule laid out by Grabauskas.

The FTA went radio silent on the prospects for the project pending the outcome of the election, saying it needed a strong local partner to proceed but hoping to stay out of local politics. Last week, after the election, the FTA told Civil Beat it still expected to complete a funding deal this year.

If signed, the FFGA would guarantee $1.55 billion in funding — about 30 percent of the project’s estimated $5.2 billion construction cost — but would not set a timeline. Inouye said in his press release that HART will receive $200 million in New Starts funding from Fiscal Year 2012 immediately upon a deal being signed.

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