About the time this newspaper hits the racks on Wednesday, the Triangle Transit Authority board will be hearing two critical pieces of information about its Durham-to-Raleigh rail transit project. The first is a recalculation of the TTA’s ridership estimates, which will either put the project back on track, so to speak, or knock it for an outer loop. The second is about the prospects for development around the first 12 rail stations–as seen by our good friends the developers. Can the TTA’s planners win against the invisible hand of sprawl?

For the best part of a year, that outcome’s seemed more than a bit in doubt, in good part because of a decision by the Federal Transportation Administration to rate the project “Not Rated” due to a big old glitch in the state’s transportation modeling program; that, in turn, screwed up the TTA’s ability to estimate anything. The state’s model said that, by 2030, driving from Raleigh to Durham at rush hour would take four hours-plus, assuming current (read: lack of planning) trends continued. That’s gotta be wrong, the feds said. Yes–by at least an hour.

At the TTA offices, where I’ve spent some time lately, the rote response to this unhappy situation is to note that the feds did not rate the project “Not Recommended,” which is the kiss of death. Numerous other “Not Rated” projects elsewhere, including the first rail-transit line in Charlotte, have gotten up off the floor to win their federal funding, and so will the TTA’s, its leaders predict.

I trust that they’re right. I’d hate to think of the Triangle 20, 30, 40 years from now still married to the car, clogged to death, air quality sucks, gas at how much a gallon–it’s not a pretty sight. Think January 2005 “snowstorm” (half an inch; icing; gridlock) twice a day. We have been warned.

Still, faces at the TTA are long, and it’s because the modeling issue comes at a very bad time in the project’s history. This thing’s been on the drawing boards since the ’80s. For the past decade, it’s moved steadily up the feds’ list of so-called “New Start” transit projects, along the way gathering some $80 million of federal money for design, engineering and land acquisition toward the final federal share of about $400 million when it’s finally built. (That’s out of a total cost of about $700 million, with local and state tax sources providing the rest.)

There’s a federal process for evaluating such start-ups, in other words, and for years the TTA has dotted every “i” and analyzed every “transit t” to the feds’ satisfaction. No, at the outset the Triangle did not have enough people, nor nearly enough population density, to support a transit system, by the feds’ lights. But the process anticipates growth, the Triangle has grown, and we’re ready now.

The problem is, we’ve grown, and a lot of other cities have grown too; but federal funding for transit has not grown lately, thanks to the Bush administration. So under the Bushies, the FTA is pushing projects down the road, as it were, by changing–and toughening up–the standards by which they’re evaluated. What used to be a passing grade based on cost-effectiveness (How much is your project? How many riders will use it?) no longer is.

Two weeks ago, we learned that a number of pro-transit members of the U.S. Senate–one a Republican, the others Democrats–maneuvered in the back-room negotiations over the new, $284 billion transportation funding act (most of it for roads) to exempt their pet projects from these higher standards. A commuter-rail project in the northern Virginia suburbs was so favored by Sen. John Warner, a Republican. So were projects in Portland, Ore., and Silicon Valley by Democrats Ron Wyden, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein.

But the TTA project had no such champion in the back rooms–not Sen. Elizabeth Dole, not Sen. Richard Burr. They’re both Republicans, and it’s tempting to blame that fact. But TTA folks will tell you that the only hard-nosed Senate backer they’ve ever had was Republican Lauch Faircloth, before he lost his seat to John Edwards in 1998. (They have hopes now for Dole, who’s showing interest, I’m told.)

So the cost-benefit formula remains a major hurdle for the TTA project, as it should be. If the ridership won’t be there, we shouldn’t build it.

But ridership’s not a static function. The rail line’s designed to cause urban development, not just follow it, and to replace some of the suburban, car-oriented kind. More development, more riders.

Thus, the TTA wants to contract with one or more “master developers” to take over the land it’s acquiring around the station sites (and add more, adjacent land on their own nickels) for the purpose of getting new apartments and condos built in mass quantities–stores and offices, too, where possible–and sooner rather than later.

Create density quickly, that is, in a rail corridor that was carved out originally (and still functions as) a freight route–and so has no density at all to start with.

The good news for TTA is that its pitch attracted three competing groups of developers with–collectively–lots of experience, though perhaps nothing on this scale. Names like Roger Perry of Meadowmont and Falls River fame, and Tom Darden, the Cherokee Brick king, of whom we can say that, when they talk real estate, investors (and other developers) listen.

The bad news is, while doubts about the project linger, the public is hearing them and little else.

A committed master developer or two will firm up the TTA’s ridership estimates, says John Claflin, its general manager, and improve its cost-benefit rating with the FTA. But that’s only part of what it will do, and maybe not the most important thing.

This project has been so long in the planning stage–and projects of this kind take so long anyway, without any delays, from conception to the first bulldozer of dirt–that the public forgets why they’re for it; doubts begin about whether it will ever happen, and the danger arises that they’ll become self-fulfilling.

Because the one thing that will kill this project–the thing the FTA won’t abide–is lack of public support.

“People tell me, until they see some construction start, they won’t believe it’s really coming,” Claflin says. “And I’m telling them, we’ve bought all of the property, done all the design work, selected a rail car and a company to build them, picked the site and designed our maintenance yard–it is coming, and in three years we’re gonna be running trains.”

Still, in the absence of visible progress, critics of the project have had lots of running room to call it, as state Rep. Russell Capps of Raleigh does, “a runaway train” and a waste of money that could be spent on more roads.

And there’s another reason the criticism sticks, I think. This first TTA rail line, as important as it is, is only a beginning–and will change the future shape of growth in the Triangle only to the extent that it’s augmented by more rail and more bus corridors linked together in a seamless network.

The planning for such a network is not very far along. Only a few people are even dimly aware that it’s started. But a vision of where we’re going with transit is vital if we’re going to make that our destination and not just more sprawl.

I’ll be writing about that subject–a future transit network in the Triangle–soon.

Heroes and zeroes
Heroes: Did my eyes deceive me, or was that Raleigh’s new planning director, Mitch Silver, and Wake County’s relatively new one, Melanie Wilson, pro-actively planning the future of the Dorothea Dix property?

Sure enough, Silver and Wilson–with Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and County Commissioners Chair Joe Bryan standing behind them–presented their own plan for Dix to a legislative subcommittee, and it was 1) way better than the two plans LandDesign, a Charlotte firm, did for the state, and 2) unprecedented in my memory that our planners stepped out with their own plan, rather than awaiting somebody else’s.

Purists who want all of Dix’s 311 acres as parkland will balk. But the Silver-Wilson scheme protects 180 acres, frames them nicely with residential “eyes on the park” to enhance safety, and imagines future rail-transit connections to downtown. It’s alive, and it’s good–look for it soon on the city and county Web sites.

Zero: Sorry, Gov. Easley. When a man’s conviction is overturned, as Silvester Smith’s was, and someone else is charged, he’s considered innocent–until proven guilty, remember? The fact that you, as a prosecutor, put him in prison 20 years ago, and still think he did it, isn’t relevant–except that it puts you in a conflict-of-interest situation to judge his application for a pardon and restitution from the state.