Friday, December 8, 2006

Moving Beyond Tunnel Vision

The Moving Beyond Congestion project suffers from tunnel vision. Its preliminary report sets out that public transit in the region is in deep financial trouble. The solution proposed focuses on fixing public transit through hefty infusions of new capital and operating dollars.

Missing is any sustained discussion of how the transit system interacts with the highway system, which accounts for the vast majority of the trips in the region. Nor does the MBC literature make a case that the proposed increased investment in public transit will deliver more congestion-relief, environmental and quality of life benefits than other kinds of transportation-related nvestments. It is not hard to make a case that more money will make for a better transit system. It is harder to make the case that more money for public transit is the best way for the region to spend those transportation dollars. The MBC folks don't even try.

The MBC's tunnel vision reflects the silo-like organization of transportation in the region. IDOT and the Illinois Tollway divide up responsibility for major highways. They have different funding sources, bureaucracies, enabling statutes and cultures. A wide variety of local authorities handle local roads. The transit agencies are bundled under the RTA, which has its separate enabling act, funding sources, bureaucracy and culture. It is as if highways and public transit function in different worlds.

This rigid division of labor has real life consequences. IDOT, for example, cannot control prices and train intervals on the Blue Line in order to relieve rush hour congestion on the Kennedy Expressway. Pace and the CTA cannot force local governments to implement a traffic signalization program that would speed buses. And then there is land-use. The CTA lacks the legal levers to, for example, stop the building of a huge parking garage right next to the Merchandise Mart stop on the Brown/Purple line. Consequently, everyone focuses on their little corner of the transportation universe and major opportunities fall through the cracks.

Thus, it was refreshing to read the December 2006 report entitled "The Eddington Transport Study." The Study was prepared for the British government by Sir Rod Eddington, a former airline executive. Given the nationwide scope of the Study, it is not surprising that it focused more comprehensively on the variety of transportation options offered by buses, rail, aircraft and private vehicles.

Like the MBC writings, the Study points out the economic and social benefits of a strong transportation system. It makes some recommendations that should resonate locally. For example, the Study recommends that transportation investment should be focused on the existing transportation system, primarily in large urban areas, and not on new greenfield projects.

Thus, the Study recommends against a proposed new high speed rail system, suggesting that the money might be better spent on upgrading existing rail networks. Echoes of the STAR Line, that billion dollar plus new rail line in the suburbs that has been pushed ahead of other projects (e.g., Cicero Avenue corridor; O'Hare/Midway connector) that are less glamorous but would carry more people and provide more congestion relief.

The Study recommends an aggressive roll-out of a road pricing program, and this recommendation attracted the most press attention. The Study points out that pricing road travel is probably the most cost-effective way to deal with congestion. It cites the example of London's congestion pricing program, which has reduced auto traffic by 15 percent in the affected area. Over half of that displaced traffic has shifted to public transit.

Congestion pricing not only improves traffic flows during peak periods, it reduces the need for expensive additions to the highway system. Road pricing also helps ensure that the owners of private vehicles assume more of the social costs associated with private auto travel (e.g., higher levels of air pollution associated with cars).

The MBC writings are silent on the issue of road pricing. MBC thus overlooks a powerful tool for increasing ridership and funding for the region's public transit system. Customers have to pay when they ride transit. Most roads in the region are free. It is hard for public transit to compete in that price environment. Make auto travel at least as expensive as public transit travel--and especially expensive in congested corridors at peak times--and public transit starts to look like a viable alternative for more people.

We can take some comfort from the fact that Great Britain appears to be vexed with the same silo-like approach to local transportation that faces this region. The Study cites the example of local transit agencies unable to force changes in roadway design that will help improve bus service. Likewise, the RTA's singular focus on public transit renders it powerless to effect changes that could deliver major improvements to public transit service in the region.

Finally, the Study recommends that governments think small and focus their investment in areas where congestion is a problem. "Think small" means paying attention to things like bicycle commuting and pedestrian-friendly intersections, investments that can be important supplements to traditional approaches to increasing the capacity of a transportation network. Focusing investment on congested areas is based on the commonsense notion that congestion signals the presence of economically valuable activities that are being ill-served by the transportation system.

The MBC Report, in contrast, fails to address how the public transit system might be enhanced by initiatives (e.g., bicycle commuting) that fall outside of the purview of the service boards. Nor does it contain any metric for how transportation capital investments should be made. The MBC sets out the service boards' wish lists for capital investments (e.g., STAR line, Circle line) but nowhere addresses how these investments are going to effectively relieve congestion at the various well-known traffic bottlenecks in the region.

Shouldn't we know which of the proposed capital investments are most likely to improve the travel times for the greatest number of people? Can we take seriously any proposal to spend billions of dollars purportedly to provide congestion relief without knowing whether and how notorious bottlenecks like the Eisenhower or the Kennedy will be unclogged as a result of such an investment?

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