The head of the Federal Transit Administration says he doing everything in his power to push forward a light rail line connecting the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The proposed Central Corridor project has been mired in local controversy resulting in three lawsuits and two federal civil-rights complaints.
But Peter Rogoff told Minnesota Public Radio News that the project is not in trouble. Local transit supporters say they've found an unlikely ally in the Washington bureaucrat.
Rogoff said if you're looking for a clear sign that the FTA is on board with Central Corridor, just skim through President Obama's budget proposal. You'll find what local transit supporters hope is the first of many hefty payments toward the line.
"The fact that we put $45 million into the president's budget for 2011 is the strongest possible signal we could send that we intend to sign a fully funded grant agreement," Rogoff said. "We don't put increments for a specific project in the president's budget unless we expect to get to the finish line."
Local transit officials are counting on the federal government to pay for half of the $957 million project. They expect the formal funding agreement to be signed in September, although Rogoff would not confirm that timeline.
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[It was] silly in that the Met Council was proposing to build foundations for stations, and not the stations to serve the residents of that community.
Rogoff says the 11-mile corridor excites him because it would connect not only the two downtowns, but health care facilities, the University of Minnesota, and all the neighborhoods up and down the line. The trains are projected to draw more than 40,000 riders a day.
But the Central Corridor line is personally meaningful to Rogoff now that the plans include three additional stations in under-served neighborhoods.
Grassroots groups ranging from Asian shopkeepers to disabled residents clamored for the extra stops, and found a friend in Rogoff. He took it up as a matter of civil rights because of the low-income and minority communities who live along the line.
"I can't explain why these issues didn't get a loud voice in the Twin Cities, but we certainly listened to folks and responded as we felt needed to," Rogoff said.
As the route was being planned, the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority recommended 16 stations along the line, which spread out some stations a mile apart along University Avenue in St. Paul. The Metropolitan Council said including the three extra stops would cause the project's cost-effectiveness index, or CEI, to balloon, essentially killing any hope for federal money.
Under the Bush administration the CEI was the primary criteria the federal government used to evaluate transit projects.
Rogoff says the Central Corridor became the poster child of why the policy needed to be changed.
"It was taking on a form that was going to be really silly -- silly in that the Met Council was proposing to build foundations for stations, and not the stations to serve the residents of that community," he said. "And that is really indefensible on any score."
Not only did Rogoff's agency ease up on the CEI, making the extra stations possible, it also agreed to match local dollars to pay for them. The FTA now considers a host of other factors, such as environmental or economic benefits in addition to cost-effectiveness.
In St. Paul, project partners say they didn't expect to find a champion in what many considered to be an inscrutable agency.
"For so many years, it felt like the FTA Administrator was like the Wizard of Oz, that nobody ever got to talk to him," said Nancy Homans, the Central Corridor point person for Mayor Chris Coleman.
"And then all of a sudden, with Administrator Rogoff, community groups were meeting with the FTA," she said. "They were coming to town, and they were willing to meet with elected officials. And suddenly that curtain was gone, and that possibility of partnership was opened up, which changed this project instantly."
Rogoff said he gave the issue a closer look into the need for the extra stops while attending a transit conference last fall in Boston. He said he was cornered by a handful of Twin Cities advocates who spotted him while he was ordering coffee.
"Those were the people who found in me in the line in Starbucks at the Westin in Boston," he said.
During his interview with MPR News, there was a lot Rogoff would not say about the project. He declined to wade into any discussion of the civil-rights complaints filed by community groups, or the three lawsuits. The University of Minnesota, a St. Paul neighborhood group, and Minnesota Public Radio have all sued over the project.
The neighborhood group fought for the extra stops, but says the project planners still haven't addressed their concerns about reduced bus service and gentrification.
Rogoff said the recent policy change doesn't mean there is hope for major recalculations along the route.
"If what you're asking is, 'Does our change in policy give an opportunity to reconfigure this project and make all kinds of program changes with new alignments and new technologies?' I would argue, 'Yes, of course you could do that, but you will delay the project many years."
Rogoff said he thinks this project should have been done decades ago, and he has no interest in holding it back any further.
Project planners expect the FTA to give them their blessing to enter final design later this month, which would allow major construction to start in August. The line would be up and running in 2014.
Editor's Note: We corrected this story to clarify that the lead agency at the beginning of the Central Corridor planning process was the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, which recommended 16 stations along the line.