A big transit project like the Central Corridor light rail proposal must clear a lot of hurdles to get federal funding.
The project must show it will not damage the environment, can attract riders and has a guaranteed source of local funding. Most important, however, a transit project seeking federal money must hit a money target called the CEI, the cost effectiveness index.
Take the total cost of building and operating a transit project, divide it by the estimated amount of travel time riders save and the result is the cost effectiveness index.
For the Central Corridor light rail project between St. Paul and Minneapolis the cost effectiveness index is $24.41 per rider.
To stay within that number Central Corridor planners have trimmed the length of the line, reduced the amount of utility work under University Ave. and the biggest trim of all, eliminated the tunnel underneath the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that could have cost as much as $150 million.
Not hitting the $24.41 per passenger target means the project doesn't go.
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"(It)didn't matter how you did on anything else, if you didn't pass that one little piece you couldn't move forward," says Mariia Zimmerman.
Zimmerman left Minnesota in l997, college degree in hand, for Washington, D.C. One of her first jobs was on the staff of the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA controls the federal purse strings for transit in this country.
Zimmerman now works for a coalition advocating for transit projects around the country. She and others inside the Washington, D. C. beltway are hearing the Obama administration wants, at the very least, to loosen the strictures of the cost effectiveness index.
The loosening, Zimmerman says, will allow FTA bureaucrats to consider other factors.
"(Looking at) the cost per rider of the project but also looking at what will be the land use benefits, what kind of coordination is there in terms of trying to get new development and preserve development around transit stations," she says.
Transit can be a potent development tool.
Examples abound of cities putting in a light rail lines and folks flocking around stations to build housing, offices and businesses. Transit oriented development can lift property values, create jobs and spur extra tax revenues.
That's what Central Corridor boosters are hoping will happen along University Ave.
At this point, however, the Federal Transit Administration has declared the cost effectiveness index number and not transit oriented development as the critical factor in giving a thumbs up or down to a project.
It's time for the CEI not just to be amended, but eliminated, says Rep. Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says.
"As soon as there is a Federal Transit Administrator I will encourage that person to, by executive order, erase it from the books. And if they don't we'll do that in legislation."
The cost effectiveness index became the deciding factor for transit projects in April, 2005. That's when the FTA received a letter from the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget proclaiming the CEI's primacy.
Until that changes the folks planning the proposed $915 million Central Corridor project must continue aiming at the $24.41 cost per passenger target the FTA has told them they must meet to qualify for federal dollars.