U.S. Rep. David Price said Monday that the Triangle's troubled commuter train project should be given a waiver from a strict new federal cost-effectiveness standard -- if it is still capable of meeting the old standard.
"We're not really talking about an exemption from the rules," Price said in an interview. "We're talking about not changing the rules under which we have operated for 10 years."
The Triangle Transit Authority had hoped to receive approval from Washington to start construction this year on its proposed 28-mile, $759 million rail line from Durham to Raleigh.
But the Federal Transit Administration forced a delay of at least a year while it directed an overhaul of TTA's ridership forecast. Meanwhile, the agency said rail projects would be held to a higher standard for cost-effectiveness than the one TTA and other agencies had met in previous years.
Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, spoke at the annual meeting of a Triangle business group that advocates for transportation improvements, the Regional Transportation Alliance. Carter Worthy of Raleigh, the chairwoman of the TTA, said transit supporters will know where the project stands by Friday, the TTA's deadline for submitting new ridership and cost-benefit numbers to Washington.
"If we meet the new standard, we'll be in great shape," Worthy told the business group at a luncheon meeting at Brier Creek Country Club in West Raleigh. "But that will be very very difficult to achieve."
The new funding threshold set by the Federal Transit Administration is a maximum project cost of $21.99 for every hour of travel time savings, which qualifies for a "medium" cost-effectiveness rating.
Worthy said it was possible that the TTA would fail to meet the federal agency's previous "medium-low" standard, a cost-effectiveness value of $27.99.
"If that happens, yeah, we're probably looking at more cost cuts and delays," Worthy said. She said it was more likely that the key number would fall somewhere between the two marks.
Price indicated that he would push to have the old rule applied to the TTA only if it would make the difference between success and failure. Four projects in other regions have received exemptions from the new rule in legislation, and a fifth has received it by a decision of the federal agency.
"It really is a moving target," Price said. "There needs to be fair treatment."
Joe Freddoso, a Cisco Systems executive who became the transportation advocacy group's new chairman Monday, echoed a call by Price to give strong regional backing to the TTA's push for federal funding.
"We think that the rules were changed in the middle of the game, and we just want equity for the region," Freddoso said. "And equity, in our minds, means being held to a standard that we were told we were going to be held to at the beginning."
If the TTA fails to win the federal funding it seeks to cover 60 percent of the project cost, he said, regional leaders must work together to find an alternative.
"No question that transit is part of the equation going forward," Freddoso said in an interview. "This is an issue that, with the doubling of our population in the next 25 years, we can't road-build our way out of. We need alternate forms of transportation."
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff can be reached at 829-4527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.