Saturday, February 10, 2007

MBC Final Report: Capital Offense?


The Final Report of the Regional Transportation Authority's Moving Beyond Congestion project is driven by three scenarios: Invest to Maintain the existing public transit system; Invest to Enhance that system; and Invest to Expand that system.

In earlier posts (e.g., here, here and here) we have questioned the wisdom of the Invest to Expand scenario. It appears that this level of capital investment in the regional transit system will not deliver significant incremental gains in public transit ridership, traffic congestion relief, or environmental benefits.

The Final Report does nothing to allay these concerns about the Invest to Expand scenario.

The RTA's Leap of Faith

A big assumption in the Final Report, like the earlier Moving Beyond Congestion interim report, is that there is significant unmet demand for public transit in the collar counties. The corollary assumption is that this demand can be tapped into only through billions of dollars of new capital investment, plus the increased operating costs that it will take to run this expanded and enhanced system.

The performance of suburban transit providers since the RTA was established in its current form in 1983 indicates, however, that this assumption is weak at best, a politically-driven fantasy at worst.

After all, since 1983 there have been major increases in population and jobs in the collar counties. As the Final Report discloses (pg. 21), for example, between 1990 and 2000 two-thirds of the region's growth in work trips occurred in the collar counties. Between 2000 and 2005--a mere 5 years--while population was dropping in Cook County the collar counties saw their population grow at rates from 2.8 percent (DuPage) to 28.1 percent (Will).

In addition to these highly favorable demographics, the RTA made sure that Metra was getting a share of transit capital dollars three times its share of regional transit riders. The RTA also was setting Pace's farebox recovery ratio much lower than the CTA or Metra ratios.

Despite these advantages, Pace and Metra's performance in the collar counties lagged. Reading between the lines of the Final Report (pg. 21) it is evident that their market share of trips in the collar counties has dropped since 1983.

In sum, there does not appear to be substantial untapped demand for public transit in the collar counties. It would take a much different environment--e.g., much higher gas prices and/or tolls or other fees--to get folks out of their cars. As the Final Report acknowledges, "the dramatic growth in intra-suburban commuting is a major challenge for transit, given the automobile-centric orientation of many suburban developments." (Pg. 21)

Proposed Distribution of Capital

The Final Report exposes the RTA's failure to critically examine and then prioritize the capital needs of this region's public transit according to performance-based criteria.

The 2007 RTA Budget allocates existing capital dollars to the three service boards as follows (all figures in millions):

2007 RTA Budget

$1,524.3 -- 54.1%

$1,107.7 -- 39.3%

$186.7 -- 6.6%


Recall that the CTA provides 80 percent of the transit trips in the region. The Invest to Maintain scenario increases the CTA's share of capital dollars somewhat, but Metra's share of capital dollars remains over double its current 14 percent trip share:

Invest to Maintain Scenario

$6,300 -- 61.2%

$3,700 -- 35.9%

$300 -- 2.9%


The Invest to Enhance Option shifts an ever higher share of capital dollars to Metra and Pace, who together provide 20 percent of the public transit trips in the region:

Invest to Expand Scenario

$328.9 -- 30.4%

$405.6 -- 37.5%

$348.4 -- 32.2%


The shift of transit capital dollars to support transit service in the "automobile-centric" oriented collar counties is even more dramatic in the Invest to Expand scenario:

Invest to Expand Scenario

$655.2 -- 13.9%

$4,000 -- 84.7%

$70 -- 1.5%


Together, the Invest to Enhance and Invest to Expand scenarios will allocate over 80 percent of the capital money for regional transportation improvements into the two service boards who carry only 20 percent of transit customers and who have been unable to grow their market share significantly despite 25 years of favorable demographic trends and treatment by the RTA:

Combined Invest to Maintain/Invest to Expand Scenarios

$984.1 -- 16.9%

$4,405.6 -- 75.9%

$418.4 -- 7.2%


The total capital investment package proposed by the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents represents an unprecedented shift of capital money to Metra and Pace from the CTA:

Three Scenarios Combined

$7,284.1 -- 45.2%

$8,105.6 -- 50.3%

$718.4 -- 4.5%


The proposed capital allocations under the combined three scenarios compared to market share is as follows:

Capital Allocation (3 Scenarios Combined) vs. Market Share

Market Share: 80%
Capital Allocation: 45.2%

Market Share: 14%
Capital Allocation: 50.3%

Market Share: 6%
Capital Allocation: 4.5%


Explanation One: Machiavelli Approach

Perhaps the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents are hard-headed political realists with an understanding that intensive public transit only makes sense in relatively densely populated areas that are not "automobile-centric" oriented. They know they must get more money for the CTA, which has been shortchanged of capital for years and whose system is breaking down. They also know that they need the support of suburban legislators and their constituents.

These hypothetical political realists know that in the current political environment they are unlikely to emerge from Springfield with the full $10 billion in new capital dollars over the next five years.

Their strategy thus is to dazzle the suburbanites with the prospect of 80 percent of the Invest to Enhance and Invest to Expand scenario dollars--money that will fund all sorts of suburban transit infrastructure and service. But these realists know full well that these projects and these two scenarios will fall by the wayside during the legislative process, leaving CTA with a somewhat greater share of capital dollars than it is slated to get under the current RTA budget.

Mission accomplished. The disappointed suburbanites will just have to wait under the next big capital program, but they can console themselves that Pace and Metra will continue to get a share of capital dollars much larger than their trip share combined.

Explanation Two: True Believers

There is a more disturbing explanation for why the RTA plans to devote almost 55 percent of total capital dollars, and over 80 percent of new capital dollars once the Invest to Maintain projects are funded, to Metra and Pace. That explanation is that the RTA truly believes that the "automobile-centric" collar counties are where transit capital investment is likely to do the most good in terms of increasing transit ridership, reducing traffic congestion and the like.

Such a notion flies in the face of the reality that population density is crucial to the success of public transit. Public transit trips almost always take longer than trips by private car. Transit may not be disadvantaged that much in densely populated areas (e.g., traditional urban cores) because trip distances are less and private autos are slowed by frequent stoplights and the like. In the suburbs, however, trip distances are longer and travel by car usually is faster than in the urban core. Together, these factors result in a speed/time differential that is felt acutely by travelers and places transit at a huge competitive disadvantage for most suburban trips.

Maybe the RTA truly believes that with billions of dollars of more investments in suburban transit it can overcome this structural disadvantage and fill those Pace buses with folks happily narcotizing themselves on the free TV on those buses. Our national adventure in Iraq and the federal government's investment in abstinence education rather than sex education suggest that faith-based policy making is not all that unusual these days.

Explanation Three: True Believing Machiavellians

There is even a more disturbing possibility. That is that the RTA believes that the future of the region's public transportation system is in the collar counties. And, the RTA also believes that the CTA is so weakened by its need for operating subsidies and its poor operating performance (in part a function of the CTA's insufficient share of capital over the years) that the RTA and its suburban allies can wrest an even bigger share of capital dollars from the CTA.

Had not the most recent November election turned out as it did, this explanation would have been the most likely explanation for why the RTA is recommending a shift of an even greater share of capital dollars away from the CTA. It seems unfathomable in the current political environment, however, that the RTA truly believes that it can pretty much write the CTA out of a meaningful share of the capital dollars devoted to "enhancing" and "expanding" the region's public transit system.

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My guess is that a few highly-placed persons at the RTA fall within the Machiavelli camp (explanation #1). As for the rest of the RTA, those folks have listened to the siren songs of Metra and its suburban patrons for so long that they may actually believe that heavy investment in areas least suited for transit is the best use of the region's transit capital dollars (explanation #2), while some--a declining number--still yearn to "stick it" to the CTA and the City of Chicago (explanation #3).

The RTA/MBC's baffling capital investment policy recommendation is perhaps the best argument for why the RTA either needs to disappear or be replaced by an agency with the power--and more importantly the appetite--to move capital dollars to where they will produce the most transit ridership, traffic congestion relief and other benefits associated with transit.

Let's hope that the General Assembly and the Governor make a more critical, reality-based examination of the facts before pouring billions of dollars more into a suburban transit infrastructure that has failed thus far in growing transit trip share despite relatively favorable population and job growth trends.

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