Friday, December 29, 2006

"Overinvestment" of Capital Dollars in Public Transit?

The blueprint for future regional highway and public transit investments in the region has been drafted by the Chicago Area Transportation Study ("CATS"), the federally-mandated metropolitan planning organization for northeastern Illinois. CATS' 2030 Regional Transportation Plan: Update to the Capital Element (2006) and its predecessor, the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan (2003), lay out a long list of transportation projects for the region.

What is troublesome in both the RTP and the Update as posted for public consumption is that they do not contain project-specific cost estimates. Nor is there any detailed discussion of the funding sources for the projects. The RTP simply projects that between 2004 and 2030 $61 billion will be available for maintaining and improving the region's transportation system. (Pg. 10 of 124) The RTP states that $47 billion will be needed to maintain the current system in a state of good repair and $5 billion should be allocated to "shared use" facilities, primarily arterial bus, truck, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, leaving $9 billion for the expansion of the highway and rail systems.

The Update increases the projected amount of capital funds available by 2030 to $64.9 billion. (Pg. 11 of 226). Like the RTP, the Update indicates that $47 billion will be needed to maintain the current system and $5 billion to develop shared use facilities. The Update states that there will be $9.4 billion to spend on major system expansions.

Now consider the Moving Beyond Congestion analysis of the capital needs of the just the public transit providers in the region. It projects that over the next 30 years it will take $34 billion just to maintain the current public transit system, $5 billion to enhance the system, and $17.9 billion to expand the system--$56.9 billion in all. (The accuracy of these characterizations will be the subject of another post.)

Compare these numbers to the Update. The update projects $47 billion to maintain the transportation system over 25 years--$1.88 billion/year. The RTA/Moving Beyond Congestion estimate of the cost of maintaining the current public transit system is $34 billion over 30 years--$1.13 billion/year. This indicates that the public transit system will be consuming approximately 60% ($1.13b/$1.88b) of the capital investment being devoted to maintaining the region's transportation system.

Likewise the RTA and its Moving Beyond Congestion allies seek a total of $22.9 billion to enhance and expand the system. This compares to the $14.4 billion that the Update projects will be available for such purposes for all modes of transportation in the region.

Public transit has significant environmental and social benefits. Nonetheless, the RTP projects that in the best case scenario by 2030 only 11 percent of trips in the region will be taken by public transit. (RTP at pg. 71 of 219) Are the benefits of public transit so substantial that investing roughly 60 percent of the region's transportation capital dollars over the next 25 years in a public transit system that will then provide only about 10 percent of the trips in the region makes good sense? Does the Moving Beyond Congestion argument that we invest all or nearly all of transportation system expansion capital dollars in public transit play well with the motoring public who elect the members of the General Assembly?

The burden is on the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents to make the case that increasing the already heavy "over-investment" of transportation capital dollars in the public transit system relative to trip share is the best use of public money to achieve the transportation and environmental benefits necessary to make this region a better place to live and work.

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