New FTA rule may affect Central Corridor project

Washington Avenue rendering
A rendering of part of the Central Corridor project. A new rule by the Federal Transit Administration may affect the planned Central Corridor project.
Rendering courtesy of Metropolit

The Obama administration is changing a decision-making rule that has long rankled transit advocates. The rule change would allow the FTA to factor in livability as it awards federal money for a project and it could affect the Central Corridor light rail project.

At a transit conference in Washington, D.C. Wednesday, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced the Federal Transit Administration "will now evaluate the environmental, community and economic development benefits provided by transit projects, as well as the congestion relief benefits from such projects."

Sounds reasonable but so-called livability factors have not been a part of how the Federal Transit Administration decides to dole out transit dollars. Instead, communities have had to calculate a cost effectiveness index.

The index is a formula that measures the cost per passenger of building a project. It's created by dividing the project's cost by the number of riders it will serve.

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That number has been the FTA's bar and communities with a number above the bar don't qualify for federal transit dollars.

That encourages communities to keep a lid on project costs by eliminating features such as transit stations, for example, that are popular with some residents.

Metropolitan Council chairman Peter Bell said the cost-effectiveness requirements - which were implemented by the Bush administration - impose a financial discipline that he thinks is valuable.

Bell said adding livability as a measure will ratchet up competition for the scare federal transit money.

"That means the Central Corridor and the southwest line could be competing with projects that, in my mind, are much less meritorious than other projects and that it will become more of a political process than one based on the merits of a particular corridor," Bell said.

After Secretary LaHood announced the rule change, FTA administrator Peter Rogoff singled out the Central Corridor project as one that would've been designed differently if livability factors had been considered.

"That project is specifically not building stations in a fashion that troubles us from a civil rights perspective because it is not going [to] adequately serve the African American community and the Asian community," Rogoff said.

Central Corridor planners did not originally include stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western avenues, locations popular with some residents.

One has since been added to the plan.

Although the FTA announced the new rules will be applied to future projects, Rogoff indicated it might also be applied retroactively to the Central Corridor.

Bell worries the livability rule change will prompt residents to press for all three stations and delay the project.

St. Paul resident Ann White, chair of the coalition of community groups lobbying for the stations, said meeting the federal requirements for adding the stations is well underway.

"Late February there'll be a determination by the FTA how quickly the project can move forward," White said. "And it appears that this probably would not hold up the project."

But it will add to the cost, currently at $941 million. Each additional station will cost about $5 million. Ann White is confident there are local sources of money to cover the increase.

Metropolitan Council chair Peter Bell is much less confident.

Bell said he's not sure how adding livability to the federal transit funding formula might affect the Met Council's negotiations with the University of Minnesota over the U's worries about how light rail vibration and electronic interference will affect sensitive lab equipment near the line. University officials weren't immediately available for comment.