Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tidbits: Libertarians; Tax Fever; Spreading the Booty

Three items:

Libertarians: Libertarians have always struck me as the kind of people who regale you at lunch with tales about the miracles of the free market and then try to stick you with the check. That's an unfair stereotype, but this is a blog so so be it.

To their credit libertarians clustered around the Reason Foundation have been very active and very creative in the global discussion on transportation issues. A Reason Foundation study entitled "Innovative Roadway Design: Making Highways More Likable" shows why the Foundation and its ideas are playing such a role.

The study, authored by Peter Samuel and Robert W. Poole, Jr., is just crackling with ideas about how to reconfigure highways so that they work better and have a much better environmental profile. They draw from examples worldwide where government and private highway operators are doing some very interesting things to press the envelope in terms of how we think about and practice highway design and operations. These hard-nosed libertarians even stress the importance of aesthetics in highway design.

While highways are not the focus of this blog, I commend the study as an example of the kind of creativity that we can only hope we will find in the Moving Beyond Congestion effort's upcoming final report. Such creativity certainly was missing from the interim report.

Kane: A recent article indicates that Kane County is thinking about doubling its local gas tax and tolling some new bridges. It is interesting that Kane County is doing this before seeing what kind of transportation capital program and/or transit bailout package comes out of the General Assembly this spring (or summer). I t appears that suburbanites--and hopefully City of Chicago folks--are increasingly willing to pony up more in tolls and gas taxes if such pain will result in tangible transportation improvements.

The proponents of the Kane County gas tax increase point to the fact that neighboring counties have a 4 cent tax and that after the increase Kane's tax would match that level. Apply the same logic regionwide. If a regional gas tax were imposed uniformly in the region, then maybe there would be less resistance than a tax--like the current RTA sales tax--whose rates vary by sub-region.

Booty: Another recent article reveals the strategy of the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents to travel around the region and promise the locals all sorts of public transit improvements if only the Moving Beyond Congestion package is approved.

The article reports that the MBC proponents "will consider requesting a tax increase for the six county area." T his is yet another trial balloon. The article gives no indication that the assembled group from the south suburbs objected to this notion. Indeed, State Senator Halvorson is quoted as saying she favored the MBC initiative.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The RTA Act (Capital Investment): What Were They Thinking?

When the RTA Act was last revamped in 1983 the federal government was getting into the business of providing both capital and operating subsidies to public transit agencies. Operating subsidies dried up in the 1990s, but the federal government has continued to provide substantial capital funds for public transit. This funding includes "formula" funds distributed according to a statutory formula and "New Starts" funding for new transit projects. New Starts funding is supposed to be allocated based on a comparative assessment of project merits, but in the last federal transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) much of the new starts money is earmarked for specific projects.

It is very difficult to decide how to parcel capital dollars among transit projects and between service boards. The RTA Act clearly contemplates that the RTA will decide which transit projects in the region would be funded. Section 4.02 of the RTA Act provides in relevant part:

The Authority shall be the primary public body in the metropolitan region with authority to apply for and receive any grants, loans or other funds relating to public transportation programs from the State of Illinois or any department or agency thereof, or from the federal government or any department or agency thereof.

Section 4.02(b) goes on to bar the service boards or any other unit of local government from applying for federal (or state) capital funds unless the RTA has put the project in the RTA's Five-Year Program. The Five-Year Program is the RTA's detailed listing of future capital projects. (See section 2.01(b) of the RTA Act.)

The RTA has been derelict in its duty to set and enforce capital investment priorities. Today the RTA is far from the "primary body" seeking capital funds for transit. Instead, each of the service boards apply for state and federal dollars on their own. As we might expect, the service boards aggressively push their own capital investment agendas and in doing so they come into conflict, often to the dismay of the federal legislators who are supposed to be pushing the Illinois agenda in Congress. No one--not the region's metropolitan planning agency (CATS) and not the RTA--has stepped up and made critical judgments about which projects will advance the RTA's goal of developing a "comprehensive and coordinated" regional public transit system. (RTA Act, section 1.02(ii))

The RTA's failure to exercise its power over capital investment decisions has several deleterious effects. First, the RTA's fails to exert discipline over capital investment decisions means that the service boards can avoid making the hard decisions necessary to provide the public with a coordinated public transit system. Had the RTA exercised its capital investment powers, for example, the RTA long ago could have insisted that before it embarked on various line extensions Metra implement some sort of fare card reader system so that riders can transfer seamlessly among the three transit systems.

Second, there is lots of wasted effort because the RTA and the three service boards each have extensive staff devoted to planning for, applying for and then administering federal and state grants.

Third, the competition for federal money by the three service boards undercuts the principle of regionalism. Major projects such as the "CTA's" Circle Line project and "Metra's" STAR Line project are identified with particular service boards, which in turn are identified with particular regions. This kind of factionalism makes it all the more difficult for the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents jigger with the RTA's sale tax rates and the distribution of that money. That is because the RTA sales tax and the distribution of that revenue to the service boards differ by Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties. Wouldn't it be much more consistent with the principles of regionalism to have "RTA" projects administered by the service boards?

Finally, the RTA's failure to screen capital investment projects based on some reasonable criteria mean that the region may not be making best us of federal and state capital dollars. In other words, what may look like a good investment to a single service board may not look like an especially good investment from a regional perspective.

The RTA's failure to assert its primacy in making capital investment decisions begs the question we posed many posts ago: Is the RTA just powerful enough to be irritating but not powerful enough to do much good?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Less Is More When It Comes To Transit?

The premise of the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents is that shrinking the public transit system in the region is unacceptable and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. They are recommending that the State of Illinois provide substantial new capital and operating subsidies to expand the region's public transit system. The upcoming final MBC report also likely will recommend that the five collar counties within the RTA's jurisdiction pay a higher RTA sales tax. Currently, the five collar counties have a 0.25% RTA sales tax while Cook County residents pay 1 percent. The price tag--$57 billion in capital dollars over the next 30 years plus untold billions of dollars in operating subsidies.

A recent article in the Washington Post by Ted Balaker and Sam Staley entitled "5 Myths About Suburbia and our Car-Happy Culture" questions the wisdom of the proposed general expansion of the region's public transit system. The authors make some relevant points:
  • Even in the areas with the strongest transit systems, travel by transit takes much longer than travel by car.
  • Reliance on the automobile appears to be a function of a nation's wealth. The wealthier the country the greater the reliance on the auto. Even in Europe, with its excellent public transit and high gas taxes, over three quarters of all trips are by auto.
  • Despite increasing levels of public funding for transit in the United States, the proportion of work trips by transit in this country fell from 63 percent in 1960 to 5 percent in 2000.
  • Transit's small market share means that in many areas even sizeable percentage increases in transit's market share will have a limited impact on reducing traffic congestion.
  • Further improvements in emissions controls (and gas mileage) are more likely to drive environmental improvements than driving more people to take public transit.
Balaker and Staley are associated with the Reason Foundation, so it is not surprising that they are not especially supportive of publicly subsidized transportation or especially concerned about global warming. Nonetheless, they do believe that there is an important place for transit in some areas:

But public transit still has an important role. Millions of Americans rely on it as a primary means of transportation. Transit agencies should focus on serving those who need transit the most: the poor and the handicapped. They should also seek out the niches where they can be most useful, such as express bus service for commuters and high-volume local routes.

Two immediate reservations about the article. First, by choosing 2000 as the end date of their ridership analysis the authors miss the upward tick in public transit market share in recent years. Second, in the cold, cruel world of politics telling public agencies to focus on the poor is a recipe for marginalization and inadequate support. Transit agencies likely are better supported when they have a significant percentage of so-called choice riders, voter and taxpayers affluent enough to have a car but who choose to take transit anyway.

Their critique of the arguments in support of indiscriminately expanded public transit, however, still deserves serious consideration. Perhaps the General Assembly's goal should be to facilitate the evolution of the region's public transit system from the current one-size fits all, maximum coverage model to a more nuanced model where transit funding and resources are focused only on areas likely to support financially viable public transit service. In other areas, "public" transit could be cobbled together with privately run bus, jitney and van pool services, perhaps with the help of grants from local governments and large employers.

In other words, government would have two functions with respect to non-auto transit. Public transit would operate service in key regional corridors such as Metra and CTA rail lines, arterial streets, and the like. They would provide the kind of high-volume, high intensity service traditionally associated with public transit.

In other areas--e.g., those many parts of the region populated with near-empty Pace (and sometimes CTA) buses, the government would shift to more of a broker function. This function would involve extending a common technological platform--e.g., fare media, real-time vehicle location information--for all forms of transit in the region. It would also involve efforts to coordinate disparate forms of transportation so that they fit well with the mainline service run by the public agency or agencies. Finally, government might subsidize some service, but only if that service provided substantial benefit to the mainline service.

Under this approach capital investment decisions would be made differently than the current consensus/log-rolling model. Transit investment would be driven by mode-neutral comparative assessments such as (1) transit trips generated per million dollars of capital investment and (2) cost of ownership over life of asset. Currently, there is no binding prioritization of transit investment decisions among the three service boards that make up the RTA. The Moving Beyond Congestion proponents have no plan to spare us from even more investment in areas ill-suited and sometimes downright hostile to public transit while investment in relatively densely populated areas gets pushed to the back burner.

Maybe less could be more when it comes to transit.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The RTA Act (Budgeting): What Were They Thinking?

The core RTA functions are set out in Article IV of the RTA Act. Review and approval of the service board operating budgets is one of those key RTA function. That process is set forth in sections 4.01(a) and 4.11:
  • RTA gives the service board so-called "marks," which are estimates of how much operating subsidies will be available to the service boards during the upcoming fiscal year.
  • The service boards prepare their operating budgets and submit them to the RTA.
  • The RTA board approves the budget by a super-majority (i.e., 9 out of 13) vote.

The budgets of the service boards are combined with the RTA's own budget. The combined RTA budget must meet two requirements. First, the budget must be balanced and sufficient to cover obligations when they come due:

The budget shall show a balance between anticipated revenues from all sources and anticipated expenses including funding of operating deficits or the discharge of encumbrances incurred in prior periods and payment of principal and interest when due, and shall show cash balances sufficient to pay with reasonable promptness all obligations and expenses as incurred.

The other key requirement is the farebox recovery ratio. Section 4.01(b) provides in relevant part that the RTA budget must show that:

[T]he level of fares and charges for mass transportation provided by . . . the Service Boards is sufficient to cause the aggregate of all projected fare revenues from such fares and charges received in each fiscal year to equal at least 50% of the aggregate costs of providing such public transportation in such fiscal year.

The balanced budget and farebox recovery ratio requirements were intended to be important pieces of fiscal discipline. They were meant to prevent the service boards from rolling out expensive and underutilized service and then come running to the General Assembly seeking a bailout when operating deficits resulted. (The RTA, of course, sidestepped these requirements in its 2007 budget by writing into its budget a large new operating subsidy from the State of Illinois even though that subsidy is but a gleam in the eyes of the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents.)

The farebox recovery ratio is a contentious subject for the RTA and the service boards. RTA assigns different farebox recovery ratios to the service boards in recognition of their different operating environments. For 2007 those ratios were: Metra--55%; CTA--52%; Pace--36%; ADA paratransit: 10%. The service boards complain about these "inequities." Indeed, in recent years Pace sued the RTA, alleging that the RTA had unfairly raised Pace's recovery ratio requirement.

The farebox recovery ratio requirement also forces the service boards to confront the need to raise fares in order to raise sufficient revenue to meet the requirement. Raising fares is never a popular option in the highly politicized environment in which the service boards operate.

The CTA's 2007 Budget Recommendations (accessible here) has a cogent discussion of the farebox recovery ratio and its effects. (Pgs. 64-66 of 158). The CTA points out that the 50 percent farebox ratio requirement for the RTA system is higher than all but one of 25 other major metropolitan area (New York City). Only two other systems--New Jersey and Philadelphia--have farebox recovery ratios above 40 percent. (See here for some international farebox recovery ratio data.)

The CTA argues that the high farebox recovery ratio is especially hard on bus service because bus service has a higher ratio of operating to capital cost than rail service. Indeed, CTA bus ridership has dropped sharply during the RTA's watch and Pace ridership has failed to grow despite strong population and job growth in its service area.

The CTA also points out that the subsidy per ride in the RTA region is among the lowest in the nation. It argues that the relative lack of public support, coupled with the pressure to raise fares and/or reduce service to comply with the farebox recovery ratio, has put a strong downward pressure on ridership, especially on the bus side.

Both the high farebox recovery ratio and the low per ride subsidy may be a function of the sheer size of the RTA system. Generally speaking, the larger the system the higher the farebox recovery ration and the lower the per ride subsidy. This is just a reflection of the economic benefits of scale.

Nonetheless, the CTA's critique of the farebox recovery ratio will have to be taken into account by the General Assembly. As the CTA admits in its 2007 Budget Recommendations, its farebox recovery ratio will drop to 45 percent by 2009, dragging the RTA as a whole below the 50 percent level mandated by the RTA Act.

While the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents no doubt would welcome repeal of the farebox recovery ratio plus a big new operating subsidy, would it be prudent for the General Assembly to repeal all of the financial performance requirements written into the RTA Act. Indeed, the RTA's provocative disregard for the existing requirements, however justified in an effort to preserve the existing public transit system, may prompt the General Assembly to strengthen those requirements.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

RTA Act (Article III): What Were They Thinking?

Article III of the RTA Act covers the organization and operation of the RTA board. We've discussed the allocation of RTA board seats among the three regions built in to the RTA: City of Chicago; suburban Cook County; and the collar counties. (Here here, here and here.)

Article III (70 ILCS 3615/3.06) establishes the six-county region that is subject to the RTA's jurisdiction. These counties--Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage and Will--no doubt comprised most of the known urban/suburban universe when the RTA was created. Since then, however, development continues to occur--some would say mestasize--in counties outside of the six county region. Kendall County, for example, nourished by federal dollars brought home by recently deposed Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, is growing rapidly. There has been talk of extending Metra service from Aurora to Yorkville and even beyond to Ottawa in LaSalle County. The Prairie Parkway, a key Hastert initiative, is another spur to development outside of the six-county region. Development is also occurring along the Northwest Tollway between Elgin and Rockford, leading to talk of a commuter rail line connecting Rockford with Chicago. (Here and here)

Should the RTA's jurisdiction be extended to include counties beginning the seeming inexorable path from farmland to strip mall franchises? The answer is probably not if the RTA's mission continues to be focused on public transit. These outlying regions are unlikely to generate all that much sales tax revenue for the RTA. Yet, including them in the RTA would create pressure to supply these exurban regions with expensive and relatively unused public transit service in order to show the local they are getting something for their tax dollars. Who needs more whining like that from Kane County officials.

The RTA Act could be amended, however, to encourage the RTA to use intergovernmental agreements and the like to cooperate with public transit initiatives from outside of the six-county region if such cooperation enhances the RTA system. Thus, it might make sense for the RTA to cooperate with a rail or bus rapid transit initiatives that will deliver people to and from outlying areas to the RTA service area.

Another objection to expanding the RTA's geographical scope is that doing so would further dilute the influence of the City of Chicago and suburban Cook County, where the vast majority of transit trips are taken and where most of the funding for regional transit comes from.

In sum, there is no compelling reason to increase the size of the RTA's jurisdiction from the existing six counties.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

That Sinking Feeling: CTA Bus Ridership

RTAMS data shows that public transit ridership in the region is almost 30% lower today than it was in 1980, despite substantial population growth in the region. The ridership losses, however, were primarily on the CTA bus system. The CTA bus system's poor performance continued in 2006, when bus ridership dropped another 1.6 percent (4.6 million riders.)

Figures are in millions:

Mode/1980/2005/% Change

CTA Bus/540.6m/305.5m/-43.5%
CTA Rail/155.5m/154.9m/-0.4%
RTA System/814.1m/574.2m/-29.5%

The CTA bus and rail systems were affected by the same general demographic trends, such as Chicago's population loss over the past 25 years, the decline in manufacturing employment and higher rates of auto ownership. Yet, the CTA rail system did better than any other transit system in the region, while the CTA bus system did far worse.

The most important factor in the decline in the CTA's bus system likely is growing traffic congestion. That congestion creates a vicious cycle: congestion reduces bus reliability (e.g., bunching) which prompts people to abandon the bus system for cars (or in some cases CTA rail) which causes more congestion, which causes more people to abandon the bus system. This cycle has been grinding away for the past 25 years or more.

The flip side of this market decline in the CTA bus system is that the lost CTA bus riders may be the people most likely to be lured back on to public transit if bus system reliability can be improved. Improving bus system reliability will depend on low-glamor but effective measures such as traffic signal priorization for buses, a system wide roll out of real time bus location technology so people can use their cellphones to know when their next bus will arrive, use of bus rapid transit techniques, and other efforts to improve the travel experience (e.g., even more bus shelters, onboard Wi-Fi).

Such mundane improvements do not seem to be on the radar screen of the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents, including the service boards. Except for middling efforts to develop a few BRT routes, the MBC capital improvements wish list is tilted towards rail line investments.

It seems that in the effort to buy political support by scattering big ticket capital items around the region, the MBC proponents are forgetting that their first mission should be to attract back to transit the many folks who abandoned transit under the RTA's watch.

The 235 million annual trips lost on the CTA bus system between 1980 and 2005, roughly 650,000 per day, might be the easiest trips to win back to the region's public transit system. It is a shame that the MBC proponents are overlooking this market opportunity and failing to propose investing in winning these folks back to public transit.

Instead, it looks like we'll continue mining for public transit riders in exurban areas through Metra line extensions and more Pace service. Given Metra and Pace's poor performance during 25 years when their primary service areas were booming with rapidly growing population and employment growth, this strategy may be necessary politically but it doesn't make good transit sense.

RTAMS--Another Data Source for Transportation Geeks

Kudos to the RTA and other regional public agencies (CTA, Metra, Pace, ISTHA, NIPC, CATS) for putting together and posting the Regional Transportation Asset Management System (found here)

The RTAMS webpage allows users to access data on travel patterns, capital investments, financial reports, and the like in the region.

Unfortunately, IDOT is not among the participants. Whether IDOT's absence is because it lacks data or because it chooses to hunker down with its data in its bureaucratic bunker or for some other reason is unknown. Hopefully, IDOT will participate soon.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What's Wrong With CTA: Crain's Explains

It is heartening to see at least one local publication beginning to dig into the thorny issues surrounding the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative. Crain's has an article by Greg Hinz entitled "Crain's Investigates: What's Wrong with the CTA" that is worth reading.

The article's summary answer: "a crippling combination of aging infrastructure, funding shortfalls, questionable choices by CTA management, a string of bad luck and a historic rise in ridership — up 25% since 1999 — that has overwhelmed a rail system once considered nearly as reliable as cold in January."

The "question choices by CTA management" are preferring investments in new infrastructure (e.g., Circle Line) rather than in things less flashy but more likely to be of immediate benefit (e.g., signal system upgrades).

On interesting tidbit in the article is that the CTA appears slow to spend its available capital dollars. According to the article as of August 2006 the CTA had "$1.5 billion in available but unspent grant money — $495 million of that not even under contract." Unnamed CTA sources pointed the finger at the Illinois Department of Transportation, citing IDOT's "overly restrictive rules." Unnamed IDOT sources disputed the charge.

Someone should look into that issue, which might affect other service boards as well. IDOT is hardly a hotbed of innovation and creativity, so it is quite possible that the CTA has a point. On the other hand, it appears from the news reports that the CTA has had difficult in administering its capital program.

I suspect Auditor General William Holland will have something to say on these points. In the meantime, this article is worth a look.


The Bears weren't the only team that scored. The Moving Beyond Congestion initiative got a big boost from the Daily Herald editorial board. The 1/22/07 editorial, found here, was a strong endorsement.

The editorial lamented past decisions to stop service on lines like the North Shore to Milwaukee and the Fox River trolley, pointing to the high expense of efforts to restore service to those corridors. (Interestingly, the editorial did not point to the STAR Line, that suburban sacred cow, as an example of throwing much money after bad decisions.) It also notes that if Chicago gets the 2016 Olympics, the region will have to upgrade its transit system.

The editorial closes with these words:

Whether the state can commit to the RTA’s full request is an open question, depending on the details and revenue sources. Generally speaking, however, the cost to improve public transit could be chump change compared to the cost we’ll all pay for failing to act.

It is something to see $57 billion in capital investment and many billions of dollars more in operating subsidies be described as "chump change." Let's hope that the Daily Herald's readers will be so sanguine if and when the General Assembly raises taxes or users fees to obtain this "chump change."

The RTA: What Were They Thinking?

This is the first several posts looking at the RTA and the RTA Act. As part of the Moving Beyond Congestion process, the public and the General Assembly need to closely examine the RTA Act, the charter for the RTA, and determine what changes need to be made in the RTA's powers, functions, and mission.

Article I of the RTA Act outlines the purposes of the RTA Act. The more things change the more they stay the same. The General Assembly's list of findings and purposes (section 1.02) cites the importance of public transit to Northeastern Illinois and the financial crisis facing the public transit service providers. The General Assembly's description of the importance of public transit could be lifted from the more fervent Moving Beyond Congestion propaganda:

Comprehensive and coordinated regional public transportation is essential to the public health, safety and welfare. It is essential to economic well‑being, maintenance of full employment, conservation of sources of energy and land for open space and reduction of traffic congestion and for providing and maintaining a healthful environment for the benefit of present and future generations in the metropolitan region. Public transportation improves the mobility of the public and improves access to jobs, commercial facilities, schools and cultural attractions. Public transportation decreases air pollution and other environmental hazards resulting from excessive use of automobiles and allows for more efficient land use and planning.

It is rather ironic that public transit advocates have been beating the "congestion" drum for decades now, as illustrated by this language, when by today's standards the 1970s and 1980s was the blissful era of relatively uncongested roads.

If the case for public transit hasn't changed much in 25 years, how about the purpose of the RTA? Section 1.02(c) sets out these purposes:

It is the purpose of this Act to provide for, aid and assist public transportation in the northeastern area of the State without impairing the overall quality of existing public transportation by providing for the creation of a single authority responsive to the people and elected officials of the area and with the power and competence to provide financial review of the providers of public transportation in the metropolitan region and facilitate public transportation provided by Service Boards which is attractive and economical to users, comprehensive, coordinated among its various elements, economical, safe, efficient and coordinated with area and State plans.

Note that the "single authority" is intended to be "responsive to the people and elected officials of the area" (emphasis added). Thus, the RTA Act writes the State of Illinois out of the governance equation, even though over time the State has supplied a large and growing share of financial support to the RTA and its three service boards, CTA, Metra and Pace.

The General Assembly limits the RTA's powers to providing "financial review of the providers of public transportation" and "facilitating" comprehensive and coordinated public transit provided by the service boards. Thus, the RTA does not have a role in operations other than as a "facilitator." One big issue is whether the General Assembly intended to hobble the RTA by so limiting its powers and, if so, whether doing so still makes sense.

What is also interesting about this list of findings and purposes is that nowhere is there a finding that justifies, or an identified purpose served, by chopping up the six counties over which the RTA has jurisdiction into three regions--City of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the five collar counties--for purposes of taxation, board representation and allocation of operating subsidies. That balkanization has fostered unhealthy rivalries between the regions and between the service boards. No wonder that we still do not have a universal fare card for the region.

In sum, is the RTA just powerful enough to be irritating but not powerful enough to do much good? Stay tuned.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Innovation + Integration = MIA?

What is it with long titles these days? Is there a inverse relationship between the length of the title to an article or conference and the merits of the event or publication?

Well, ponder these questions when you attend the conference sponsored by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) entitled: "Innovation + Innovation: A Summit on the Economic Impact of Linking, Jobs, Housing and Transportation Planning." The all-day conference is on February 6th on the UIC campus. Mike Moskow, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, is the headliner. (Agenda and registration form.)

Such conferences are interesting and fun in a geeky type of way. There is ritualized hand-wringing over how the region is sprawling to hell and earnest calls for transit oriented development and other putatively sound planning and public investment policies.

But a look at the actions two key sponsors of the Summit who have had the power and resources to make a difference in how the region does transportation and planning suggests that such conference are largely empty rituals.

-- What did the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS), the region's metropolitan planning organization that is now part of CMAP, ever do to stop sprawl? Did CATS ever take on IDOT or a group of local mayors and refuse to put in the regional plan transportation investments that increased sprawl? Did CATS oppose, for example, the South Extension of I-355 into the sprawling fields of Will County or any other significant road project proposed outside of the urban core of the region? Did CATS ever oppose a Metra rail line extension to exurban areas or insist that such extensions be tied to requirements that local communities permit transit-oriented development? Did CATS ever rank and prioritize public transit investments according to principled criteria such as trips per million dollars of investment? No. Instead, CATS was and presumably is a collection point for the ideas of the various transportation providers and local governments, most of whom are not particularly interested in TOD and the like.

-- The record with respect to the RTA, the mover behind the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative, is even more disappointing. The RTA oversees hundreds of millions of dollars of transportation investment in the region each year. Yet, in its almost 25 years of existence the RTA has yet to adopt any capital investment policy that ties these investments to local land-use policies that will result in transit-supportive development. If the RTA had barred the service boards from making substantial new investments in communities that do not support transit oriented development policies then maybe some of the hand wringing that we will see at the February 6th conference might have been avoided.

Likewise, RTA is responsible for years of overinvestment of capital in Metra projects relative to Metra's share of public transit trips. This RTA policy helped make the sprawling and auto-dependent suburban communities more attractive relative to the dense and efficient (from energy/environmental perspective) urban core served by the CTA, which has suffered from many years of underinvestment relative to its trip share.

So, let's enjoy the show on February 6th. But don't think for a minute that the key sponsors have earned the right to lament the state of the region. Their actions and inactions on the planning and capital investment fronts have contributed to the very problems they will be lamenting.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Raising Kane II

An earlier post described the Kane County Board as a bunch of whiners. Despite Kane County's modest contribution of RTA sales tax revenue to the regional transit system, the county is served by multiple Metra lines plus local bus service. Nonetheless, the Kane County board members gave Moving Beyond Congestion leaders a hard time when they briefed the Board, complaining that Kane County is grossly under served by public transit.

Maybe the Kane County Board is starting to see the light. A recent news report (entitled "Kane Puts Priority on its Road Projects" BTW) indicates that the Board's Legislative Committee called "for a funding solution to the Regional Transportation Authority's strategic plan for the metropolitan area." (Also here.) Notice that the Committee did not oppose the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative.

A very interesting statement in the article is: "If a transit sale tax increase for the RTA is proposed, committee members said, the county should press for a fair return on service from Kane tax dollars." Note that the Board Committee did not reject outright the notion of an RTA sale tax increase in the collar counties. This suggests that the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents are successfully grooming suburban lawmakers to support--or at least not vociferously oppose--an increase in the RTA sales tax in the collar counties.

This could be a huge win if the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents can push through a collar county tax increase for public transit without the good burghers descending on them with pitchforks, flaming torches and vats of tar.

Regional Transit Goverance: By The Numbers

Governance of the RTA and the three service boards--Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, Pace--is a topic that the Moving Beyond Congestion folks would rather not discuss. Their fragile coalition likely would fall apart if they started a tug-o-war over governance. Fighting over money is fight enough.

Yet, other stakeholders, most notably the State of Illinois and the General Assembly, should review how regional transit is administered and by whom. Later posts will look as issues such as whether geographic compartmentalization of the boards of the RTA and the transit agencies makes sense.

For now, let's look at the distribution of the 39 board members who serve on the boards of the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace. Excluding the Chairmen of Pace and Metra, who are not tied to any geographical area or appointing authority, leaves 37 slots. The CTA is a tough case. Let's assign the four CTA appointees of the Mayor of Chicago to Chicago even though they need not live in Chicago. Let's also assign the CTA Chairman to Chicago, as contemplated by the RTA Act, even though the CTA Chairman need not live in Chicago. These assumptions arguably overstate Chicago's influence. Finally, we'll put the three gubernatorial appointees to the CTA Board in their own category.

For the RTA sales tax revenue I've included the State of Illinois' Public Transportation Fund contributions equal to 25% of the RTA sales tax receipts. Not included are other operating subsidies provided by the State, so the State's financial contribution percentage is lower than its percentage of total operating subsidies.

Here's the numbers. You decide who, if anyone, got hosed in 1983 when the RTA Act was passed.


Board members: 27%

Morning boarding: 67.6%
Passenger vehicle miles: 42.0%
RTA sale tax revenue: 24.5%%
Population 35.8%

Suburban Cook County

Board members: 33%

Morning boardings: 25.2%
Passenger vehicle miles: 33.2%
RTA sale tax revenue: 42.6%
Population: 30.7%

Collar Counties

Board members: 28%

Morning boardings: 7.2%
Passenger vehicle miles: 24.7%
RTA sale tax revenue: 12.9%
Population: 33.6%


Board members: 8%

Morning boardings: N/A
Passenger vehicle miles: N/A
RTA sale tax revenue: 20%
Population N/A

Pace's Governance

Section 3A.02 of the RTA Act, (70 ILCS 3615/3A.02) gives Pace a 12-member board. Six directors are appointed by the suburban members of the Cook County Board. These directors must come from various statutorily-defined regions to ensure geographic diversity. The Chairman of each collar county (Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, Will) appoints one director. The collar county directors must be chief executive officers of a municipality within their county.

The Pace Chairman is selected by "a majority of the Chairmen of the DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, Will County Boards and the suburban members of the Cook County Board."

The recent controversy over the appointment of Richard Kwasneski to be Pace's Chairman begs the question: Does this language require a majority of the Chairmen of the collar county boards and a majority of the suburban members of the Cook County Board to appoint a Pace Chairman? Or is is enough that a majority of all eleven Cook County board members and collar county board chairmen sufficient?

News reports indicate that the Will County Board Chaiman plus the suburban Cook County board members engineered Kwasneski's appointment. Lake, Kane and DuPage Counties were not consulted.

If the intent of the General Assembly was to require regional consensus on a Pace Chairman by requiring majorities of both the Cook County board members and the collar county Chairman--a reading that one can argue with a straight face is supported by the statutory language--then there may be a question whether Kwasneski's appointment was valid had the Lake, Kane and DuPage Chairman voted no to his appointment. (The actual vote for Kwasneski's appointment was not reported.)

Perhaps this issue could widen into a fissure dividing Will County and the suburban Cook County members on Pace's board from the rest of the collar county board members when the political heat rises as the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative winds its way through the General Assembly. Could there even be a legal cloud over Kwasneski's appointment and the legal validity of his actions as Pace's Chairman if in fact he did not receive a majority of votes from the collar county board chairmen? The possible ambiguity in the statutory language covering the appointment process for Pace's Chairman should be cleared up if and when the General Assembly amends the RTA Act.

A final note on Pace's board. The City of Chicago has no representation on Pace's board even though Chicago is the destination of many of Pace's customers and reverse commuters from Chicago comprise a significant part of Pace's ridership. On the other hand, none of the RTA sales tax revenue raised in Chicago is allocated by statute to Pace.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Transport Chicago 2007 Conference: Good Timing

The Transport Chicago 2007 Conference is scheduled for June 1st at the Illinois Institute of Technology. This could be excellent timing. By June 1st the fate of the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative could well be known. At least the important issues raised by the MBC proponents--and hopefully the many important issues the MBC proponents prefer not to discuss publicly--will have been thoroughly debated, even if the General Assembly is heading into an extended summer session to finally resolve them. The Conference could be an excellent time to take stock of the MBC effort and the future of transportation in the region.

The Conference has issued a call for papers. Paper abstracts are due by March 12th.

From their email addresses it appears that the organizers of the conference, Doug Ferguson and Joe Iacobucci, are from CATS and the CTA, respectively. (Hope your employers have authorized such use of your work emails guys!) From last year's program and this year's call for papers it appears that the conference focuses primarily on public transit issues. However, the name change of the organization from Metropolitan Conference on Public Transportation Research" to "Transport Chicago" suggests a possible opening for participation by folks discussing highway and non-motorized transportation modes as well. That would be a good thing, especially in a region where highways account for the vast majority of trips.

Squeezing a Turnip: A Report on the State's Fiscal Condition

A recent report by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability entitled "Private Sector Job Trends and The Illinois Structural Deficit: What Illinois' Changing Economy Means For The Demand for Public Services and The States Fiscal Capacity to Fund Them" offers a sobering reminder of the challenge the RTA, the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, Pace and the other Moving Beyond Congestion proponents will face in trying to persuade the General Assembly to invest hundreds of million of extra operating dollars per year in the short term, and billions of additional capital dollars in the long-term to maintain and then expand the region's public transit system.

The report summarizes the situation as follows. Illinois' median income has dropped substantially (12.2 percent over past six years). Future job grow will be predominantly in low-paying sectors. Income inequality is growing. The flat rate income tax and the State's heavy reliance on property taxes means the tax system is increasingly regressive as income inequality increases. Tax receipts cannot keep up with the growth in current State programs, much less support an expansion in public services. Yet, the declining share of "good" jobs that include health care coverage means that demand for public services such as health care is increasing. The State thus faces a structural GAAP deficit of $3 billion in 2007 that will grow steadily to almost $8.5 billion in 2017 without any new State programs.

That's the good news. The bad news is the CTBA's solution to this structural deficit includes politically toxic measures such as swapping a reduction in property taxes for an increase in the income tax and expanding the sales tax to cover consumer services.

In this fiscal and political environment, the MBC proponents will have to do a masterful lobbying job to convince the General Assembly to prioritize expansion of the Chicago region's public transit system over items such as education and health care. Might the General Assembly more likely point to the State's already sizeable contribution to the region's public transit system, and send the MBC proponents back home to figure out a local/regional solution.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Metra Governance: The Decided Suburban Tilt

As noted previously, if the General Assembly follows the requirements of the RTA Act and reapportions RTA board members to account for the 2000 census, then the board members appointed by the Mayor of Chicago plus the CTA Chairman no longer will have veto power over important decisions of the RTA board. Control will shift to board members from suburban Cook County and the collar counties.

Control of the Metra board is already securely in the hands of suburban Cook County and the collar counties thanks to an extraordinary provision in the RTA Act. Section 3B.02 of the RTA Act (70 ILCS 3615/3B.02) apportions the seven Metra board members as follows:

-- Mayor of Chicago appoints one board member
-- Suburban members of the Cook County Board appoint three directors
-- The Chairman of the DuPage County Board appoints one director
-- The Chairman of the Boards of Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will Counties jointly appoint two directors.

As with the RTA Board, every decade board members are to be reapportioned, but in Metra's case the allocation formula is not based on population:

Appointments to the Commuter Rail Board [i.e., Metra] shall be apportioned so as to represent the City of Chicago, that part of Cook County outside of the City of Chicago, and DuPage County and that part of the metropolitan region other than Cook and DuPage Counties based on morning boardings of the services provided by the Commuter Rail Division as certified to the Board of the Authority by the Commuter Rail Board, provided however that the Mayor of the City of Chicago shall appoint no fewer than 1 member of the Commuter Rail Board.

Note that the board members are allocated based on "morning boardings." Given Metra's primary function as a feeder of commuters from the suburbs to Chicago, the "morning boardings" formula is guaranteed to ensure that suburban representatives will dominate Metra's board. This decided suburban tilt through a formula surely intended to have just such a result seems contrary to the principle of regionalism that presumably animates the RTA Act.

The "morning boardings" allocation formula for Metra board seats creates a pernicious incentive for Metra to limit morning boardings within the City of Chicago in order to contain the City's influence over the Metra board. Whether this incentive has had any influence on Metra's investment decisions with respect to stations and service levels within the City of Chicago is something for which I'm sure opinions will vary.

The key question is whether it makes sense to so privilege morning boarding jurisdictions over afternoon boarding jurisdictions for purposes of allocating Metra board seats? Doesn't Chicago have a substantial interest in ensuring that Metra provides top-notch service to the Loop and the rest of the City and that these folks are able to travel from the City safely and efficiently? Why is this interest so devalued relative to the interest of the suburban communities in sending their citizens to Chicago via the train?

The answer by Metra's defenders is that why should the City of Chicago have any representatives on the Metra board when none of the RTA sale tax revenue collected in the City of Chicago goes to support Metra. This argument has some merit and, to the extent it does have merit, presumably it should be applied to the RTA board as well. If RTA board memberships were allocated on the basis of financial contribution to the system then the collar counties, which contribute only 16 percent of the RTA sales tax revenue, would be entitled to only two RTA board seats. Two seats is one less than the collar counties have today and two less than the collar counties appear to be entitled once the results of the 2000 census are taken into account. (See here and here)

Would it not make better sense to allocate Metra board seats based on total boardings by jurisdiction? That way the interests of communities as both senders and recipients of Metra passengers would be fully reflected in the composition of Metra' board. At the same time, might it also make sense for all jurisdictions that benefit from Metra service, including the City of Chicago, to provide some of the public subsidies for that service. Needless to say, the RTA service board funding formula is an issue that will occupy at least several future posts.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Can't Move Beyond Those Suburban Sensibilities

Today's Chicago Tribune has a delicious item entitled "Head of RTA Apologizes for Video that Missed Bus: Promo Showed CTA but no Metra, Pace." Apparently, the suburban powers that be are suspicious that the Moving Beyond Congestion effort is in their best interests. Here's the article in its entirety:

By Richard Wronski
Tribune staff reporter

January 15, 2007

For years, the Regional Transportation Authority has tried to walk a fine line, carefully balancing the interests of the three public transit agencies it oversees, lest critics accuse it of favoring Chicago over suburban needs.

So RTA officials found themselves having to apologize last week for a potential slight to the board of directors of Metra, the commuter rail agency.

During a briefing Friday for Metra officials on the status of the RTA's multimillion-dollar Moving Beyond Congestion campaign, top RTA officials showed an agency-commissioned video intended to enlist public support for billions of dollars in state transportation funding.

The video featured several Chicago Transit Authority riders, but no commuter rail users or Pace suburban bus riders.

Afterward, RTA chief Steve Schlickman quickly apologized for bringing the "wrong version" of the video. The correct version features Metra and Pace riders commenting on the importance of public transportation in their lives, Schlickman said.

Schlickman explained that he had accidentally grabbed a hastily produced version of the video, which was unveiled in November.

Metra board members seemed satisfied with Schlickman's apology. But Jack Schaffer, an outspoken former legislator who represents Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties, couldn't resist taking a dig at Schlickman.

"The updated version of the video--was the film crew able to get outside the city limits?" Schaffer said.

"Absolutely," Schlickman said. "The initial cut was done in very short order . . . and [the crew was] in the process of going throughout the region [for subjects]. I'm sorry we didn't have that for you."

The RTA uses the video to recruit governmental agencies and organizations to urge legislators this spring for more operating and capital funding. Nearly 400 groups have signed on to the project, Schlickman said.

The RTA's 2007 budget calls for $226 million in additional state funding, including $110 million more for the CTA; $105 million more for Pace, including $82 million to fund paratransit service; and $11 million for Metra.

All told, the RTA said it needs $57 billion to maintain and improve transportation projects over the next 30 years.

The $30,000 video was produced by PB Consult, a subsidiary of Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., an international engineering, planning and construction management firm retained by the RTA to develop the Moving Beyond Congestion campaign.

In the good news department, CTA ridership was up 0.5 percent in 2006. It looks like 2006 will be a good year for Metra as well. These ridership gains will certainly help the Moving Beyond Congestion effort get traction in the General Assembly.

Armchair Editorialists at the Chicago Tribune

Today's Chicago Tribune had an editorial addressing the CTA's recent announcement that Red, Purple and Brown Line service will be significantly scaled back for over two years to allow the Brown Line reconstruction project to go forward.

The editorial described the problem and then in a bit of cattiness went after the "armchair engineers" who have been offering the CTA advice on how to mitigate the problems:

CTA Board Chairman Carole Brown's blog was overrun with comments from armchair engineers who seemed genuinely disgruntled that the CTA didn't consult them before deciding how to proceed with its construction project. We don't subscribe to the wiki approach to planning mass transit, but we can't help but share their frustration. There's got to be a better solution.

I certainly expected that having taken a swipe at the "armchair engineers" the editorialists would have shown their stuff by drawing upon solid reporting on engineering best practices to outline creative ways to address the problem. At a minimum, one expected a cogent analysis of what may have gone wrong on the project.

Instead, the editorialists noted that there were some unspecified good ideas floating around and left it at that.

Thanks a lot. With this kind of unambitious armchair editorialists on staff it is no wonder the Chicago Tribune is doing so well in the market (and marketplace of ideas) these days.

RTA Governance: Examples from Other Areas

Previous posts have examined the issue of RTA governance, a subject about which the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents are silent. As shown in these previous posts, the Chairman of the CTA plus the Mayor of Chicago's four appointees form a bloc that currently has veto power over major RTA decisions. Suburban Cook County appoints four board members and the the collar counties (Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane, Will) get three board members. (These 12 board members then select a Chairman.) However, a long overdue statutorily-required reapportionment of the 12 RTA board seats among the City of Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties according to the 2000 census will result in Chicago losing a board seat and this veto power.

How do other regions with multi-jurisdictional and mult-modal transit services handle appointments to their governing boards? There are a variety of approaches, although only one other agency on this sample list (DART) appears to have the same sort of allocation of board members on the basis of population as does the RTA. Likewise, only one agency (Denver RTD) has a board elected by popular vote.

Many of the boards on the sample list have some form of state involvement, something that is missing from the RTA board. In some cases (e.g., MBTA) the governor appoints the board members. In others (e.g., MARTA) state officials sit on the board. Here's the sample list:

New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority ("MTA")
: The MTA is governed by a 17-member board. Members are nominated by the Governor, with four recommended by New York City's mayor and one each by the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties. (Members representing the latter four cast one collective vote.) The board also has six rotating non-voting seats, three held by representatives of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee (PCAC), which serves as a voice for users of MTA transit and commuter facilities, and three held by representatives of organized labor. All board members are confirmed by the New York State Senate.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Public Transportation Authority (SEPTA):
SEPTA is governed by a 15-member board. The City of Philadelphia appoints two members; one of whom is appointed by the Mayor, the other is appointed by the President of the Philadelphia City Council. The representatives from Philadelphia have the ability to veto any item that comes before the full board due to a formula based on population and ridership that only applies to the City of Philadelphia; the veto is subject to an override vote by the full board within 30 days after the veto is applied. Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County appoint two members each. These members are appointed by the County Commissioners in Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery County and by the County Council in Delaware County. The majority and minority leaders of the two houses of the Pennsylvania State Legislature (the Senate and the House of Representatives) appoints one member each, for a total of four members. The Governor of Pennsylvania appoints one member.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA): MBTA is governed by a 9-member board. The State's Secretary of Transportation is Chairman. The other 8 directors are appointed by the Governor.

Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority (MARTA): MARTA is governed by an 18-member board. Four members represent the City of Atlanta. Five members represent DeKalb County, where Atlanta is located. Three members represent Fulton County. One member represents Clayton County. One member represents Gwinnett County. Four ex officio members are the heads of public agencies: George State Properties Commission, Georgia Department of Revenue, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA):
WMATA is governed by a 12-member board. Of these 12, six are voting members, and six are alternates. Virginia, Maryland, and the District each appoint two voting members and two alternate members. The position of board chairman rotates between the three jurisdictions.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro):
Metro is governed by a 13-member board. The board is comprised of: (i) the five Los Angeles County Supervisors; (ii) The Mayor of Los Angeles; (iii) three Los Angeles mayor-appointed members; and (iv) four city council members representing the other 87 cities in Los Angeles County. The Governor of California appoints one non-voting member.

Tri-County (Portland) Regional Transportation District (Tri-Met):
TriMet is governed by a 7-member Board of directors. They are appointed by the Governor and represent and must live in certain geographical districts.

Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD):
RTD is governed by a 15-member, publicly-elected Board of Directors. Directors are elected for a four-year term; with elections staggered so that eight seats are open in one general election, seven in the next.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART):
DART is governed by a 15-member board. Board members are allocated among the 13 cities that make up DART on the basis of each jurisdiction's population to the total population of the service area. Currently, 8 of the board members are from Dallas.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tying Commuter Rail Investments to Transit-Suppportive Land Use

A policy brief from the Kennedy School of Government's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston entitled "The Impacts of Commuter Rail in Greater Boston" by Eric Beaton, a recent graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, may have some lessons for this area.

Beaton attempted to determine if the Boston area's heavy investment in commuter rail since 1970 resulted in greater population density and transit ridership rates around commuter rail stations. His study found that commuter rail is associated with "small, but generally positive, impacts." (Pg. 2 of 16)

The study also found, however, that there were similar positive impacts in relatively densely populated areas that lost commuter rail service during the multi-decade study period. In other words, it is possible that the presence of commuter rail has a relatively small impact on getting people out of their cars and onto transit. Rather, population density--a demand side factor--appears to be be the key driver of transit usage rather than the presence of commuter rail--a supply side factor.

This surprising finding led Beaton to conclude that "commuter rail is most likely to impact land use patterns when it is explicitly and clearly linked to local and regional policies for land use and development." (Pg. 2 of 16) He found, not surprisingly, that there is a strong correlation between population density around and transit usage.

As suggested in a previous post, it makes good sense for Metra to couple its investment in rail lines and stations with a requirement that the relevant local governments institute land-use policies that will increase population and/or employment density around the line or station. If anything, Metra's investments in exurban rail line extensions and rail stations in areas hostile to transit-supportive land use help accelerate the kind of development that generates significant additional auto traffic.

The RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents make no mention of legislative changes or other legally binding requirements tying transit investment to transit supportive land-use development. They focus on demand-side solutions, relying on the assumption that if you build more public transit infrastructure people will come. The flaw to this approach is that it ignores the land-use context and consequences. Will Metra investments rail lines and stations that will serve areas where 95 percent of total trips will still be by car truly contribute to reducing congestion and gasoline consumption in the region?

Beaton's study suggests the politically difficult task of tying transit investment to transit supportive land use requirements is precisely what is necessary to obtain more than a minimal return from the billions of dollars in capital investment in commuter rail that the MBC project contemplates. We can only hope that in its upcoming stategic plan the MBC will propose meaningful land-use requirements that must accompany transit investments going forward.

Others have reached more far-reaching conclusions from Beaton's study, namely, that commuter rail is generally a bad investment and that air quality and congestion relief benefits should be realized by improvements to autos and highways. This Boston Herald perspective entitled "Commuter Rail's False Promise" is one example:

By Tom Keane | December 31, 2006

As we all know, commuter rail is a Good Thing and the automobile is a Bad Thing. Trains are clean, provide cheap transportation, and get us to our destination quickly and efficiently. They discourage sprawl, with each station serving as a nexus for the "smart growth" so beloved by the new urbanist crowd. Cars, on the other hand, are the polluting, expensive, congestion-producing banes of the environment. These are the certainties that have been behind much of our public transportation policy and are behind, for example, the state’s $500 million investment in the soon-to-be-opened Greenbush Line.

In fact, though, many of these certainties may be untrue. A surprising analysis by Harvard-educated urban planner Eric Beaton adds more meat to the bones of some faint but persuasive arguments that call into question the value of fixed-rail mass-transit systems. Beaton looked at development patterns around commuter-rail terminals over the past 100 years. His study, published in September by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, contained some disconcerting results. (Disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of Rappaport’s board of advisers.) One would think, for instance, that new commuter-rail stations might encourage development nearby. It turns out they don’t. Areas around train stations are only modestly more developed than anywhere else. One would also think that new stations might encourage more use of public transit. That is also untrue. The number of people using transit to get to work is largely unchanged by the addition of new stations.

Those results may seem counterintuitive but, upon reflection, make enormous sense. Take a look at the MBTA’s lovely color-coded maps of its rail system. All lines run into Boston. That would be smart planning if Boston were where all of the employers were. However, though that may have been largely true a century ago, today just a quarter of the jobs in the metropolitan region are downtown. Instead, you’ll find them along the beltways – Route 128 and Interstate 495 – and at office parks in between.

Besides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typical worker holds a job for just four years. So, when it comes time to buy a house, there is little value in getting something close to a rail station. After all, most jobs can’t be accessed from one (try, for example, taking the T from Medway to the Westborough Technology Park – it can’t be done). And even if your current job happens to be downtown, the odds are that your next job will be elsewhere.

There’s more. Commuter rail is skewed toward serving the affluent. Unlike buses or subways, rail largely connects well-off suburbanites to downtown jobs in high-paid fields such as finance and law. Moreover, new rail stations have a trivial effect on automobile use, meaning they do little to help the environment. (In fact, according to the MBTA’s own data, commuter rail – which relies on diesel-powered trains – often increases the emissions of nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to the formation of smog.) And travel by rail is not as inexpensive as its advocates would have you believe. If you own a car already, the cost of driving may actually be cheaper.

Yet, what’s the alternative? More cars? Perhaps. As Beaton’s study points out, back before widespread adoption of the automobile, rail stations were popular places for development. But cars changed the ways we live and work. Employers began to locate outside of cities, where land was cheap. People moved to the suburbs, lured by the prospect of owning their own plot of land. Today, even with high gas prices and crowded roads, people love the privacy, comfort, and extraordinary freedom they get from their automobiles.

Can we put the genie back in the bottle? I doubt it. And if that’s the case, rather than fruitlessly trying to get people out of their cars, perhaps we should simply concede the battle and make the best of it. Encourage carpooling and hybrids, raise fuel standards, introduce congestion pricing on toll roads, and (I know this makes some gasp) expand our highway system. But more commuter rail? That’s just a train in vain.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Brown Line Project Rail Delay: Missed Opportunities

Last week's reports (here, here and here) on the major delays facing commuters on the CTA's Red, Brown and Purple Lines until some time in 2009 indicate that almost 200,000 people travel by CTA rail in that corridor every work day. This is a major travel corridor. By way of comparison, the Dan Ryan expressway carries over 300,000 vehicles daily. Since many of them are single occupant vehicles, the Dan Ryan may carry very roughly twice as many people as the CTA north line corridor.

When the Dan Ryan was being reconstructed there was a massive effort to inform people of travel options and a real sense of urgency. In contrast, the CTA's approach seems much more low-key, even though the expected travel delays are very significant, up to a doubling of travel times. Telling customers to, in essence, grin and bear it, is hardly an effective form of outreach.

The capacity reduction on the CTA rail lines could have been an opportunity for the CTA and the City of Chicago's Department of Transportation to test some rudimentary bus rapid transit ideas, including traffic signal prioritization, on major north-south streets like Halsted, Ashland and Western. There are opportunities for express bus service along Elston and Clybourn Avenues that would take folks straight to North Michigan Avenue and the Loop. Could some CTA bus routes (e.g., Montrose Avenue) take short jogs to connect with Metra stations?

And what about Metra? Could it have put up a temporary station at Addison Street and other locations along its North Line that could serve CTA north side rail riders? Is it that hard to put up some wooden stairs and lay down enough gravel for people to stand on while they wait for the train?

These CTA and Metra initiatives could have laid the foundation for CTA and Metra services improvements in the future. I guess we will have plenty of time to ponder these lost opportunities while waiting for the north side trains over the next two years.

Friday, January 12, 2007

When It Rains It Pours

The bad news just keeps on coming from the CTA.

The CTA tells riders to prepare for up to 2 1/2 years of extended delays (up to double travel times) on the North Side rail lines due to the Brown Line expansion project, which will cut capacity by up to 25 percent. (See also here and here) The next day Aldermen Ricardo Munoz and Joe Moore call for City Council hearings "into derailments, mechanical breakdowns and daily service delays that have made their constituents' lives miserable." (See also here) The alderman describe Chicago as having a "third world transit system" and accuse CTA President Frank Kruesi of "gross incompetence."

Recall that Joe Moore, the moving force behind the so-called big box living wage ordinance, was the victim of a big-time mayoral smackdown when Mayor Daley vetoed the ordinance, suggesting that its proponents were racists. Alderman Moore may feel that he has a score to settle with the Mayor, who defended Mr. Kruesi and the CTA's performance.

If that were not enough to end a bad week, a CTA train hit a teenager on the Orange Line. That could cost the CTA a few million dollars down the line.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mark Your Calendars: February 9th MBC Strategic Plan Release Date

Below are details of an upcoming luncheon sponsored by the local chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar (§ion_id=01.00).

Note the reference to a February 9, 2007 release date for the Moving Beyond Congestion's Strategic Plan, which will be a key document in the MBC's effort to obtain more financial support for the public transit system in the Chicago area.

Might be worth attending in case Steve and Leanne send up some trial ballons to test public reaction to potential proposals that might be incorporated in the Strategic Plan.

* * *

Be the first to know the latest developments in the Moving Beyond Congestion plan when you join WTS at a luncheon program on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at Maggiano's in Chicago. RTA Senior Deputy Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Regional Programs, Leanne Redden, will discuss contents of the pending Strategic Plan release, which is scheduled for February 9, with WTS members and guests.

Reservations are required for this event. Please RSVP to Sandra Verthein at or via fax at (312) 782-1684 by Friday, Jan. 10 at 4 p.m. Reservations are binding and no shows will be billed.

Additional Event Details

Maggiano's, 516 N. Clark Street (at Grand) in Chicago

Time of Event:
January 16, 2007, 11:30 AM

Member Fee:

Non-Member Fee:

Student Fee:

RTA Governance: Where is the State of Illinois?

RTA governance issues appear to be off limits for the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents, including the CTA, Metra and Pace. Nonetheless, there are other stakeholders in the regional public transit system that may focus on that issue in the upcoming battle royale in the General Assembly over public transit funding.

The State of Illinois is one such stakeholder. Currently, it provides several operating subsidies for the RTA system. The biggest subsidy is the Public Transportation Fund contributions that are payable to the RTA pursuant to section 4.09 of the RTA Act. The PTF contributions are equal to 25 percent of the RTA sales tax revenue and were $179,975,000 in 2006.

In addition, to the PTF contributions, the RTA 2007 Budget Book (pg. 39 of 43) shows that the State provides additional operating subsidies. In 2006 it paid $36,275,000 to help the service boards cover the cost of reduced fares for the elderly and other eligible classes of customers. The State also paid $54,252,000 to help cover the cost providing paratransit service.

The MBC initiative is designed to extract substantially more operating funding from the State. The RTA budget presupposes a new "Additional Funding" subsidy of $144,744,000 in 2007. This new annual subsidy will rise rapidly to $334,811,000 in 2009. Existing subsidies will increase as well. If the MBC plan is adopted, from 2006 to 2009 total State operating subsidies will increase from $267,047,000 to $668,554,000, an increase of 150 percent. The State share of the operating subsidies for the region's public transit system will increase substantially as a percentage of total RTA operating expenditures as well, growing from 29.3 percent to 49.5 percent:

2006 State Operating Subsidies: $267,047
State Share of RTA Operating Expenditures: 29.3 percent

2009 State Operating Subsidies: $668,554
State Share of RTA Operating Expenditures: 49.5 percent

On top of paying a swiftly growing share of operating subsidies under the RTA/MBC plan, the State also makes substantial capital contributions to cover principal and interest payments on RTA debt. This kind of State subsidy was $119,001,000 in 2006 and will grow to $127,500,000 in 2009. Presumably, the State will be asked to contribute significantly more capital funds to the RTA if the MBC succeeds in convincing the General Assembly to embrace its ambitious capital plan, which could cost as much as $56.9 billion over the next 30 years. When this additional form of State financial assistance is included, the State's share of total RTA expenditures is as follows:

2006 Total State Financial Assistance: $378,466,000
State Share of Total RTA Expenditures: 34.2 percent

2009 Total State Financial Assistance: $796,054,000
State Share of Total RTA Expenditures: 50.6 percent

The six-county RTA region is home to two-thirds of the State's population and generates most of the State's GNP. There clearly is a strong State interest in an effective public transportation system. Yet, despite this strong state interest and despite the projection that the State may soon be providing half of the RTA's funding, it has no direct representation on the RTA board. Further, neither the Governor nor anyone else in state government has any appointment power with respect to the RTA board.

Maybe it is time to go back to the future. Roughly 35 years before it created the RTA, the General Assembly created another regional transportation agency, namely the CTA, via the Metropolitan Transit Authority Act. Despite its name, the CTA was (and is) authorized to provide public transit service throughout much of Cook County (70 ILCS 3605/3). In other words, the General Assembly once before had to face the question of how best to balance Chicago and suburban interests in putting together a transit agency

Even through the Metropolitan Transit Authority Act, unlike the RTA Act, does not require the State to provide any subsidies for the CTA, the State has a major role in selecting members the CTA's seven-member board. (70 ILCS 3605/20) Appointments to the CTA board are allocated as follows:

-- The Governor appoints three board members, with the advice and consent of the State Senate. One member must be from outside of the City of Chicago.
-- The Mayor of Chicago appoints four board members.

Given the large and growing financial support the State gives the RTA, and the importance of a good transportation system to Illinois, might the CTA board provide a model for how RTA board directorships should be allocated between the State and local governments?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Car Boom Puts Europe On Road To Smoggy Future

That's the title of a recent New York Times article noting that despite high gas prices the combination of greater prosperity, sprawl urban development and higher rates of auto ownership more Europeans are traveling by car, leading to much higher levels of traffic congestion.

American transit geeks have long held up the Old Country as the way to go on transportation issues, with much justification. However, the article reports that Europe is in the midst of a road-building boom and that most countries lack the political will to raise taxes or create other disincentives to further market penetration by the private auto.

The article describes the kind of "draconian" measures necessary keep people from succumbing to the charms of the automobile. Denmark, for example, has resorted to "imposing purchase taxes that are sometimes 200 percent of the cost of the vehicle." As a result of these and other measures, such as congestion pricing in Copenhagen, bicycle use has increased among the Danes.

The likelihood of the Moving Beyond Congestion folks recommending 200 percent surcharges on auto sales and other disincentives to auto use are about the same that we will see Jim Reilly, the head of the RTA, tooling around the six counties in a Nihola bike.

RTA Directorships: Is There An Objective Formula For Distribution?

As shown in a previous post, the 12 directors of the RTA board are allocated among the City of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the collar counties (Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Kane and Will) according to population. Two other ways of allocating directorships come to mind, namely, formulas based on each region's financial contributions to the operation of the regional transit system or relative intensity of transit use in each region. Both these approaches would result in a major change in the distribution of RTA directorships among the three regions.

Intensity of Transit Use Formula

The House Committee's Initial Report on the 1983 Transit Formula (available here) did an analysis of transit use by region using morning boardings. (Pg. 13 of 18) It found the following distribution:

City of Chicago--67.6%
Suburban Cook County--25.2%
Collar Counties--7.2%

If a.m. ridership were the standard for allocating RTA directorships, the 12 RTA board slots would be allocated as follows:

City of Chicago--8 directors
Suburban Cook County--3 directors
Collar Counties--1 director

The Initial Report also broke down passenger miles by region:

City of Chicago--42.0%
Suburban Cook County--33.2%
Collar Counties--24.7%

If passenger miles were the standard for allocating RTA directorships the 12 RTA board slots would be allocated as follows:

City of Chicago--5 directors
Suburban Cook County--4 directors
Collar Counties--3 directors

Financial Contribution Formula

Cook County residents pay a 1 percent RTA sales tax while collar county residents pay at a 0.25% rate. According to the the RTA's 2007 Proposed Budget Book (pg. 45 of 50) the sales tax contributions from the regions are as follows:

City of Chicago--31%
Suburban Cook County--53%
Collar Counties--16%

If RTA sales tax receipts were the standard for allocating RTA directorships, the 12 RTA board slots would be allocated as follows:

City of Chicago--4
Suburban Cook County--6
Collar Counties--2

There are other possible ways for allocating RTA directorships in an "objective" fashion. One way would be to allocate the slots based on existing or projected transit capital investment by region. This would use capital investment as a surrogate for where the system is likely to grow in the future. Using capital investment as the basis for the formula would favor suburban representation because of Metra's disproportionate share of capital investment (based on ridership share) and its focus on suburban expansion projects.

Another allocation formula would be transit trips per capita. This would reward areas that have adopted land-use policies and taken other steps that have resulted in higher levels of transit use. The City of Chicago and to a lesser extent suburban Cook County would fare especially under this approach.

This all begs the question whether RTA board directorships should be allocated based on some purportedly objective formula such as population. Another question is whether dividing up the board into three regions perpetuates the kind of destructive City vs. suburban, Cook County vs. collar counties competition and enmity that defeats the purpose of a "regional" transportation authority. These and other issues will be addressed in upcoming posts.

What is clear, however, is that the current population-based allocation of RTA directorships is tilted heavily in favor of suburban representation. We will have to rely on someone other than the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents to address these issues.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Aftermath of Appointment of New Pace Chairman

The recent appointment of Richard Kwasneski as Pace's Chairman continues to attract press attention.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the appointing authorities in Lake, Kane and DuPage Counties were not consulted before Kwasneski was appointed. According to the article the suburban Cook County executives and Will County teamed up to push through Kwasneski's appointment.

Lake County Board Chairman Suzi Schmidt likened the appointment process to "Cook County politics," a comment that is sure to go over well with the Cook County representatives on Pace's board. However, she and Kwasneski pledged to work together to obtain the $22.9 million in extra money Pace needs to stay afloat.

Orland Hills Mayor Kyle Hastings was appointed to fill Kwasneski's spot on the Pace board. The Daily Southtown ran a scathing editorial entitled "Hastings' Record Doesn't Bode Well for Pace Board." The editorial is a pretty deadly attack on Hastings' record of public service and his dealings with Republican Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman. The editorial closes with this shot: "So, next time you're standing on a corner waiting for a Pace bus that may never come, remember that Kyle Hastings is now a member of the Pace board. And then stick your thumb out and hitchhike."

Certainly in the early stages of the upcoming Moving Beyond Congestion spring offensive in Springfield the Pace board and even the contentious factions that make up the MBC will hold together. The kind of raw feelings resulting from Kwasneski's appointment, however, may result in weak spots in the coalition that will grow into fissures under the pressures of the legislative process.

Will, for example, the collar counties bolt from the coalition if Metra's needs are taken care of, leaving Pace and the CTA to their own devices? Could there be a Chicago, suburban Cook County and Will County bloc? Only time will tell.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Beginning the Discussion on RTA Governance

The Moving Beyond Congestion effort is studiously silent on the issue of RTA and service board (CTA, Pace, Metra) governance. That issue is potentially the most explosive political issue involved in the upcoming debate over transit next to only the issue of how transit subsidies are raised and distributed among the service boards. The issue of governance thus merits some sustained attention.

The General Assembly passed the RTA Act in 1983. Section 3.01 of the RTA Act establishes the governance structure for the RTA. The RTA has a 13 member board of directors. The directors are allocated as follows:

- 4 directors chosen by the Mayor of Chicago with the advice and consent of the City Council.
- The Chairman of the CTA.
- 4 Directors appointed by the members of the Cook County Board elected from that part of Cook County outside of Chicago
- 2 Directors appointed by the Chairmen of the county boards of Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will Counties,
- 1 Director appointed by the Chairman of the Board of DuPage County with the advice and consent of the County Board of DuPage County
- A Chairman appointed by the other 12 Directors with the concurrence of eight directors

Section 3.01(h) of the RTA Act provides that every decade the 12 directors must be reallocated based on population. This important provision reads as follows:

The Board of Directors shall be so appointed as to represent the City of Chicago, that part of Cook County outside the City of Chicago, and that part of the metropolitan region outside Cook County on the one man one vote basis. After each Federal decennial census the General Assembly shall review the composition of the Board and, if a change is needed to comply with this requirement, shall provide for the necessary revision by July 1 of the third year after such census. Provided, however, that the Chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority shall be a Director of the Authority and shall be considered as representing the City of Chicago for purposes of this paragraph.

The 2000 census results are as follows, along with with each area's percentage of population in the six-county region:

Cook (outside Chgo.)/2,480,725/30.7%
Collar Counties Total/2,714,979/33.6%

Applying the 2000 population percentages to the three relevant areas yields the following distribution of the 12 RTA board members (the Chairman is not included for allocation purposes):

Chicago: 4 board members, including the CTA Chairman (decrease of one member)
Cook Cty. outside of Chicago: 4 members (no change)
Collar Counties: 4 members (increase of one member)

The significance of this reallocation of board seats can hardly be overemphasized. Key RTA decisions such as approval of the RTA's annual budget require a 9-person super-majority vote. Currently, if the RTA Chairman sides with the suburban majority the four Chicago directors plus the CTA Chairman can block RTA actions that require a super-majority vote. After the reallocation of directors according to the 2000 census, the Chicago/CTA bloc will be down to 4 members and the RTA Chairman plus all the suburban directors will have enough votes to authorize all RTA actions. Such a state of vulnerability is especially problematic for the CTA, which is heavily dependent on RTA discretionary operating funds.

The RTA Act's direction that board members be reallocated by every third year after the decennial census (e.g., 2003) is a direction to the General Assembly. The General Assembly may have the legal discretion to ignore its own directives. It is likely the the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents--the RTA, CTA, Pace and Metra--have agreed not to rock the governance boat in the interest of holding together their coalition. At some point, however, the General Assembly is going to have to deal with the RTA governance issue.