Saturday, November 25, 2006

Moving Beyond "Moving Beyond Congestion"

The Moving Beyond Congestion ("MBC") initiative of the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace is finally producing some substantive work, namely the recent Situation Analysis Interim Report.

Sadly, it appears from the Report that the MBC initiative boils down to asking the General Assembly for more money to shore up the status quo. Lacking is a vision for how to improve both the public transit system and the regional transportation system as a whole.


The Report lays out some of the economic and environmental benefits of public transit in Northeastern Illinois. The Report then outlines the current situation of the three service boards. That situation is grim. Despite existing annual operating subsidies that total approximately $900 million, the service boards are facing large and growing operating deficits. The service boards have started using capital funds for operations, hardly a positive business strategy. In 2006 the service boards will be transferring over $100 million in capital funds to help cover their operating costs. At the same time the service boards are diverting capital funds for operating needs, the pool of available capital funds has shrunk markedly because of the expiration of the Illinois FIRST program.

Public transit's market share continues to decline in the region. Fewer trips are being taken today by public transportation in the region than were being taken 30 years ago, when the region's population and job totals substantially smaller. Demographic trends are unfavorable, because the region's population growth and job growth are occurring largely in low density areas ill-suited to traditional public transit service models.

The Report states that the region has a choice: "Invest in, modernize and expand" the region's public transit system or "begin shrinking the transit network and lose the economic and quality of life benefits that accompany it." The Report does not give serious consideration to the options of shrinking existing public transit system or even maintaining the status quo. Rather, the report assumes the conclusion that it makes sense to expand business as usual when it comes to public transit. The Report thus exhorts us to "seize the opportunity to develop a world class transit system." We learn from the RTA's 2007 Budget Book that this means new and rapidly increasing State operating subsidies on top of the existing State subsidies. These additional public subsidies are as follows: 2007--$145 million; 2008--$223 million; 2009--$335 million. (Note the 130% increase over just three years with no signs of leveling off.) On the capital side, we are told that it will take almost $40 billion in new money over 30 years to achieve such a system.


The Report is a disappointment to anyone who truly wants a "world class transit system" in Northeastern Illinois. Despite public transit's declining market share, despite the inability of the RTA and the service boards to live within the means provided by the RTA sales tax and the matching State subsidy, despite continued low density development in much of the region that makes traditional public transit infeasible, the Report boils down to "we need more of the same" -- the same public transit agencies following the same public transit business model under the same legal/administrative structure. This is hardly a compelling case.

Some of the issues the Report fails to address include:

-- Labor Costs make up the lion's share of the operating costs of the transit agencies. When private sector companies approach or enter bankruptcy labor concessions and out-sourcing are often key to remaking the company into a viable enterprise. This is a painful process, yet it happens. What plans do the RTA and the service boards have to reduce labor costs directly and through outsourcing now that they face the public sector equivalent of bankruptcy?

-- Pace is the most heavily subsidized of the three service boards, with over 60% of its operating costs covered by public subsidies. Its operating area in the suburbs has seen steady growth in population and jobs over the past 25 years. Yet, Pace's ridership continues to drop. Why should we assume that Pace will provide "world class" transit with more money when it has been ineffectual with what it has already?

-- Transit systems are supposed to combat sprawl by offering people an alternative to automotive dependence. Then why is Metra concentrating its investment in rail line extensions and the STAR Line? Why, for example, does it make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to run a train line to Elburn when we know that most of the travel done by folks in that region will be by car even if one family member does take the train to work? Why not focus Metra's capital investment on higher density areas where it is much more likely that people will do a higher proportion of their total trips by transit, walking, and other non-auto methods? Wouldn't a Cicero Avenue connector, for example, serve far more people and generate more transit trips per dollar of investment than expensive extensions to places like Elburn, Johnsburg, and Manhattan, which simply make those areas more attractive to sprawl type development?

-- The Report makes no mention of revamping the governance structure for the RTA and the service boards. Does it make sense that the State of Illinois is being asked to provide 50% of the operating subsidies by 2009 yet neither the Governor nor the General Assembly has the power to appoint even a single member of the RTA? Does it make sense to apportion RTA board members based on the population in various counties rather than transit usage in those counties? Is the RTA too weak to do anything positive but just strong enough to be a bureaucratic drag on the service boards? Why should we consider continuing the present RTA/service board structure when it has failed to stem the market share losses faced by public transit?

-- The Report has nothing meaningful to say about how all the money requested is to be raised and distributed. Do the authors really think that the Governor and the General Assembly will step up to provide over $750 million in operating subsidies (by 2009) for transit services operating in only six counties in the state? Is public transit really more important than education and health care? Why is most of the region paying only 0.25% RTA sales tax while Cook County residents must pay 1%?

-- Both Metra and the CTA have raised fares recently without suffering ridership losses. Metra even brags in its annual budget that its fares have risen at far less than the rate of inflation. Does this suggest that higher public transit fares are economically feasible and need to be part of any financing solution?

These and many other questions need to be asked and considered before the State invests many more billions of dollars into transit. This blog is intended to be a place where interested parties can discuss the issues and share information in a creative and responsible fashion.

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