Thursday, November 30, 2006

Operating Costs & Investment Decisions

The National Transit Database provides a wealth of information about our three favor service boards. Let's take a look at the 2005 reports for CTA, Metra and Pace. Transit agencies are supposed to report their financial and other data to the NTD on a consistent basis so that good financial and operational efficiency comparisons can be made between agencies.

The Situation Analysis Interim Report Summary of the Moving Beyond Congestion project concludes that "[o]verall, the Service Boards compare well with their peers." (Pg. 18). How do they compare with each other using the 2005 NTD reports?

Operating Expense Per Passenger Mile

CTA Bus $0.93
Pace Bus $0.55

CTA Rail $0.38
Metra Rail $0.31

Operating Expense Per Unlinked Passenger Trip

CTA Bus $2.39
Pace Bus $3.68

CTA Rail $2.33
Metra Rail $6.97

Operating Expense per Vehicle Revenue Mile

CTA Bus $10.84
Pace Bus $ 6.09

CTA Rail $ 6.32
Metra Rail $12.49

The MBC folks ignore the question of where operating funds should be allocated to maximize the benefits of transit to the region.

The big question is what is the best measure of transit efficiency. Do we focus the cost of moving a passenger over a mile? In this case, Metra is the clear winner. Or is a more relevant measure the cost per trip? In this case, both CTA bus and rail are the clear winners. (Note that because the measure is "unlinked" trips, then a two-transfer ride on the CTA--which may be a single real life trip to the customer--will cost about the same as a Metra trip.)

My opinion is that cost per passenger trip is the best measure of transit efficiency and the best tool for deciding where to allocate both operating and capital dollars. In other words, we should spend transit money where it generates the most passenger trips.

Why is this? Rewarding transit agencies for passenger miles traveled in effect aligns transit agencies with all the social forces that are generating sprawl and the ever longer trips necessary for people to get to work, shop, etc. Indeed, Metra's investment in suburban extensions just helps the spread of sprawl.

A better approach IMO is to reward trip generation regardless of distance. That way the one mile hop from the Loop to North Michigan Avenue is viewed as just as valuable as the 25 mile rail or bus trip elsewhere. Why so? Transit thrives on density and in densely populated areas people walk more, use cars less, and thus generate much less air pollution than those of us whizzing around in cars in the less densely populated suburbs. Rewarding trip generation rather than miles traveled is more likely to reward densely populated areas where transit is likely to pull more people out of cars for more trips.

If the MBC project wants to truly build a world-class transit system it needs to make sure that transit investment is supporting the kind of dense residential and employment areas where people are able to function without near total reliance on the automobile.

Rather than offering a few bromides about the importance of good land-use, the MBC folks need to develop criteria to direct transit dollars to areas and types of services most likely to yield the most transit trips per dollar of investment. This raises difficult political issues no doubt, but if operating and capital funds are truly as limited as the MBC says, then shouldn't investment be where it will do the most good, namely, in those areas that will generate the most trips.

If, for example, it will take $6.97 to get an additional trip on Metra where the same amount of money will generate more than two new trips on the CTA, shouldn't we reward the service that gets more people out of their cars for more trips?

I know that there are powerful counterarguments (e.g., the more miles traveled on transit the more miles not traveled in cars, maximizing anti-pollution benefits of transit). Nonetheless, the RTA (especially) and the service boards need to look carefully to see if transit investments are supporting or undermining the type of land-use patterns that will sustain transit in the long term.


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