Image by Beverly & Pack via FlickrBy Dave Orrick
St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
MINNESOTA - A major change to a powerful bureaucratic formula in Washington sent local officials scrambling Wednesday to figure out the impact on the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line linking St. Paul and Minneapolis.
It's all about the CEI.
Behind all the politics and posturing that have characterized many major decisions about the proposed 11-mile train line -- the debate over a tunnel beneath the University of Minnesota, the struggle over how much to spend, if anything, on University Avenue businesses facing the loss of parking, the decision to remove three stations from largely minority neighborhoods -- the Federal Transit Administration's "cost-effectiveness index" has reigned supreme.
On Wednesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the CEI's reign was over.
The CEI is a complex algorithm that determines how much a project should cost, given its ability to save time for the population it serves. Under President George W. Bush, it determined the fate of all mass-transit projects in which the federal government was asked to pay half the construction cost, including the Central Corridor.
With President Barack Obama's blessing, LaHood is proposing new guidelines based on "livability issues," such as economic-development and environmental benefits, as well as cost effectiveness.
Some said the change opened the door to more stations along University Avenue and more money for businesses. Others suggested it could provide more money to address the University of Minnesota's concerns over the trains' effect on sensitive research equipmen
And some said it would do nothing.
"There's a lot we don't know about what this means," cautioned Nancy Homans, the Central Corridor point person for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff specifically mentioned the Central Corridor, saying he was troubled "from a civil rights perspective" that the project might not build train stations in black and Asian neighborhoods of St. Paul because they wouldn't comply with the Bush policy's cost-effectiveness rules.
The new policy "will allow that (train) service to do a better job of serving those communities," Rogoff said.
"He's my hero," St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune said Wednesday with a fist-pump after a reporter read him Rogoff's quote. Thune, along with council members Russ Stark and Melvin Carter III, made a beeline for Coleman's office shortly after learning the news.
"We can use this to supply relief for our businesses," Thune said.
"And build the three stations," Stark interjected, referring to stations along University -- at Victoria, Hamline and Western -- that were initially planned but yanked from the official project because they hurt the cost-effectiveness index. Currently, the city is planning to pony up the roughly $5 million needed to build one of those stations, but the fate of the other two is unclear.
"It's an enormous opportunity to give people the project we always promised," Thune said Wednesday.
Not so fast, warned several other officials, including Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, the lead agency on the project
"I am not, as of this point, planning on taking any different actions," Bell said. "Everybody's broke."
In other words, Bell and others said, just because spending restrictions might be loosened doesn't mean there's any more money available.
The Coleman administration appears to agree.
"Everybody's pockets didn't just get fatter with this announcement," Homans said.
Bell, an appointee of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the cost-effectiveness index was too restrictive, but he cautioned against removing it from play entirely.
"Does everything come back now?" Bell said, emphasizing that his staff as of Wednesday evening was unsure what the announcement meant. "Is the tunnel back on? That's two years of study and analysis and a lot more cost -- and everybody's broke. ... I am not planning on revisiting the tunnel."
Susan Kimberly, interim president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said too much progress and too many compromises have been made to reopen many aspects of the plan.
"This does not change the realities of Minnesota's economic climate," Kimberly said. "We simply don't have the time or money to re-examine every decision made over the last several years. Central Corridor must move forward on time and on budget so we can realize its benefits."
University of Minnesota officials were reviewing the federal action Wednesday and hadn't fully determined what it meant either, a spokesman said.U.S Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, praised Wednesday's news, and a spokesman said it would help the Central Corridor. A congressional staff attorney told local officials the change would help the project reach a crucial milestone next month of receiving Federal Transit Administration recommendation for funding in the president's 2011 budget.
But although LaHood rescinded the Bush policy, his new proposal can't take effect until after a long regimen of hearings and public comment under the federal rule-making process. It's highly unlikely that will be done before the spring, when, officials hope, final agreement with the Federal Transit Administration will be inked.
"And that might mean this has no effect on the Central Corridor," Bell said. "We're still trying to figure it all out."
If all goes as Bell outlined, construction will begin later this year.
This report includes information from the Associated Press.