Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Congestion and Targeted Investment

Recent studies reach the common conclusion that public transit is most effective when it serves corridors with a high volume of traffic and congestion. For example, the Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Report (pg. 5) states that "public transportation improvements are particularly important in congested corridors and to serve major activity centers."

It is no surprise to area commuters that the worse congestion is found during rush hour on the major expressways and arterial streets in the region. Some areas--e.g., I-190 into O'Hare, the Edens Junction, the Eisenhower's "Maywood Mangler"--are spoken of with dread by area motorists.

The Moving Beyond Congestion project places much stock in the congestion relief benefits of public transit as the rationale for pouring billions of additional captital dollars into the region's public transit system. We thus understandably expect that the MBC's proposal for its "world class" transit system for the region would be filled with projects targeted at relieving areas of particularly high congestion.

Unfortunately, that is not seem to be the case. The MBC includes a list of proposed projects that will be funded if the MBC effort yields significant new capital dollars for the RTA and the service boards. This list includes the usual suspects, such as the CTA's Circle Line and Metra's STAR Line.

It is not that any of these projects are bad in and of themselves. It is just that lacking in the MBC materials is any assurance that the RTA and the service boards will employ rigorous congestion relief per dollar invested type metrics to allocate capital dollars to the projects that will do the most good in terms of congestion relief and passenger throughput in heavily traveled corridors.

To make the case for spending tens of billions of additional capital dollars one would expect the MBC to use available data (e.g., the Illinois Department of Transportation's average daily traffic maps) identify the congestion choke points and to prioritize where in the region more public transit will do the most good. Instead, the MBC's projects list merely copies the service board wish lists. It is as if the MBC folks would have us believe that public transportation investment anywhere in the region will benefit the region just as much as if that investment would go somewhere else.

The uncomfortable political fact is that if a true congestion relief metric were to be used, most of the investment in new transit projects would occur in or near the central core of the region. That is a tough sell to suburbanites, who want to see more tangible public transit benefits in their area. Thus, Metra line extensions that do little or nothing to relief congestion in the key regional corridors bump projects in Cook County (e.g., Cicero Avenue transit corridor) that would carry far more people and have a much more beneficial congestion relief effect.

Why should we invest billions more in transit unless we know that investment will deliver the most congestion relief to the region?

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