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.

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