Thursday, December 21, 2006

Transit Oriented Development Rights and Wrongs

Public transit feeds on population density near bus stops and train stations. Dense population supports frequent service. The more frequent the service the more convenient public transit is to the public. The more convenient that public transit is, the more trips the average person will take on transit rather than by private auto. At some point people begin abandoning their cars and become transit dependent. That result, most agree, is a good one.

Metra spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the North Central line, which opened in 1996 and was recently upgraded. This is Metra's only new line since Metra's formation in 1983.

You would have thought that before it invested these capital dollars Metra and/or the RTA would have extracted from the local communities along the line binding agreements under which the local communities would allow and support transit oriented development near the Metra train stations. No such luck.

Ten years after the line opened it appears that the locals are still resisting the kind of transit oriented development that is necessary for the North Central line to realize its potential. A recent news story gives us the news that the village fathers of Buffalo Grove "are resisting a plan to develop the areas around Buffalo Grove's two commuter rail stations as mini-downtowns with multi-unit housing and retail shops."

One of the village trustees explains why Buffalo Grove is resisting relatively high density development around the Village's two Metra stations:

We don't want to promote high-density development," Trustee Jeffrey Braiman said at a board meeting Monday. "People say there is no downtown [in the village]. But we don't want high-density development. We want a place where people can go for dinner.

I wasn't aware that high population density tended to drive out places where people can go for dinner. From my visits to Chicago or even areas around Metra stations in places like Evanston and Oak Park it seems like the opposite is true. Nevertheless, maybe the good trustees of Buffalo Grove have adopted a corollary to Yogi Berra's statement about restaurants--"it's so crowded no one goes there anyone"--namely, downtowns crowded with people drive out restaurants.

More to the point, it is certainly possible that the trustees of nearly all-white and quite prosperous Buffalo Grove interpret the term "high density" to mean "people of color who make less money than we do." But whatever their reasons, the fact remains that nothing prevents the trustees of Buffalo Grove from stopping the kind of development that is necessary to best support the Metra line.

Metra (and the RTA) should not have been surprised that at least some of the localities served by the North Central Line would fail to support appropriate development around the Metra Stations. After all, in 1998 the Federal Transit Administration assigned a "not recommended" rating to then estimated $204 million upgrade project for the just opened North Central Line. The FTA assigned a "Low-Medium" rating in the subcategory "Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns," stating that this rating "reflects both the moderate to low densities as well as the relatively few transit-supportive policies that currently exist within the proposed corridor." (Emphasis added)

Yet, it appears that Metra and the RTA went ahead and invested over a quarter of a billion dollars into the North Central Line with no guarantees that the localities would adopt the kinds of "transit-supportive policies" that the FTA said were lacking. Their failure to do so is a shame, because their bargaining power was at its height when they were contemplating whether to proceed with the North Central upgrade and where to allocate the improvements.

The failure of Metra and the RTA to secure the kind of transit oriented development necessary to support the North Central Line in Buffalo Grove and elsewhere is a case study in how they have failed the region. Illinois law encourages intergovernmental cooperation but Metra and the RTA chose not to leverage their dollars and political clout to secure agreements with the localities necessary to secure the kind of land use appropriate to support the Metra system. They left on the table some of the congestion relief and environmental benefits associated with a public transit that could have been leveraged from the North Central Line. They viewed public transit as set of capital assets--rails, stations and locomotives--rather than as a system with land use as one of the critical components.

When Metra's enabling act is rewritten this spring, as it surely should be, some provision like the following should be added to help ensure that Metra and the RTA move beyond their ostrich-like approach to land-use:

(a) The General Assembly finds that transit-supportive development around Metra stations is essential to ensuring the long-term financial stability of Metra and obtaining the maximum congestion-relief and environmental benefits from the public's investment in the Metra system.

(b) When allocating capital investment dollars and making service improvements and adjustments, Metra shall give preference to local communities that have adopted and are actively supporting transit-supportive development policies that have resulted in or are reasonably likely to result in high density residential and/or commercial development within no less than a one-half mile radius of Metra stations in such communities.

(c) Metra shall not improve services or facilities in those communities whose land-use policies are not transit-supportive in nature. Before making significant new investments in stations or other facilities in a community or providing improved service to a community, Metra shall enter into a transit-supportive development agreement that sets out the rights and responsibilities of Metra and the local community to provide and improve transit-supportive development around Metra stations. This prohibition shall not apply to improvements necessary to protect the safety of the public.

(d) With the assistance of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Metra shall develop and publish standards for transit-supportive development around rail stations that local communities can meet if they wish their communities to participate in new Metra investments and service improvements, provided, however, that no local community will be forced to adopt such transit-supportive development policies.

No comments: