Monday, March 26, 2007

The CTA's Transit Platform

A commentator took me gently to task for suggesting in an earlier post that the City and Cook County have failed to match the collar counties, who have come together on a set of principles that they argue should guide the revamping of the region's public transit system.

The commentator pointed out that the CTA set out its "Five Core Principles for Regional Transit Solutions" in March 2005, when the CTA was seeking a legislative reworking of public transit funding in the face of opposition from the RTA, Pace and Metra. The Five Core Principles are:

1. Public transit is an essential regional resource and the entire Northeastern Illinois region needs more operating and capital funding now.

2. No transit service board in the region should gain at the expense of the others.

3. A healthy transit system curbs traffic congestion and pollution while improving mobility, economic competitiveness and the quality of life for all the people in the region.

4. Funding should keep pace with steadily increasing demands on transit, including population and job growth, the end of federal operating support, unfunded federal mandates for paratransit and rising security costs.

5. Future funding solutions should reflect the spirit of bipartisanship and regional consensus.

These principles are certainly praiseworthy, but they seem strangely dated. Principle #1 is front and center in the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion program. Principle #2 appears to be a plea to grow the funding pie so the region can avoid a battle over how to reslice that pie. The notion that no service board should gain at the expense of another does, however, does have a more radical implication. That implication is that if a service board gains more than another service board through application of the statutory funding formula for the distribution of operating funds, then there should be a redistribution of operating money from the favored service board to the less favored service board until their positions are equalized.

Principle #3 is a bromide. Principle #4 is a refreshing acknowledgment that the growth of population and jobs, primarily in the collar counties, puts real strains on the transit funding system that must be addressed. The relative lack of density in the collar counties and their preference for heavily subsidized Metra rail and demand response services over traditional bus service make transit service throughout those areas very expensive on a per trip basis compared to service provided by the CTA in its denser service area.

Principle #5 is another bromide.

The 2005 Core Principles build on a more pointed September 2004 CTA Board Resolution that addressed the then current funding problem. According to the CTA's press release describing the Resolution:

The resolution seeks support from the RTA and the General Assembly for increased funding and changes in state statute to provide the RTA greater policy discretion to allocate funding in a manner that more effectively:

Reduces traffic congestion and urban sprawl.

Increases transit ridership by basing funding in part on each Service Board’s ridership performance.

Improves air quality thereby lowering asthma rates, ozone levels and improving the general health and welfare of the entire region.

Induces and rewards efficient and cost-effective transit subsidies.

Ensures that operating funds are distributed fairly to minority and non-minority residents as required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This Resolution is significantly more pro-CTA on its face. It lays out why the region should focus the bulk of its transit effort on the urban core, which is where most transit riders continue to live and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. A viable urban core with good public transit will be a counterweight to the centrifugal force of sprawl. If, for example, it takes a $2.00 public subsidy to provide a CTA ride, an $8.00 subsidy for a Metra trip and a $24 subsidy for a demand response trip, the argument goes, why shouldn't the region focus limited resources on areas likely to generate the most transit trips for the least cost?

The 2005 Resolution also hits on issues that have largely if not entirely dropped out of the rhetoric used by the RTA in the Moving Beyond Congestion effort. The Resolution refers to asthma rates, which are unusually high in the urban core that gets the brunt of air pollution from heavily traveled expressways and arterial streets. The Resolution's reference to Title VI even more directly hits on the issue of race; namely, how the RTA's funding formula and its pro-Metra capital investment policy amounts to discrimination against minorities, who are forced to rely upon underfunded CTA service.

It is very helpful that this commentator brought these statements to our attention. These statements do not undermine my fundamental point, however. The political leaders in the collar counties have outlined their vision of how the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion effort should play itself out. The political leaders in Cook County and the City of Chicago have not.

It would be useful to hear those political voices. Is Todd Stroger, for example, content to see the CTA go through the same budget cutting process that he went through with his own budget recently? Does the Mayor of Chicago see public transit as an expensive distraction or is it at the core of his vision for the City? Are they satisfied with the levels and quality of transit service in Cook County or, like their collar county counterparts, do they think that it is past time for the service boards to update their operating models? What criteria do they think should guide the allocation of operating dollars? How do they think that capital investment decisions should be made, and by whom? Should some of the transit services be privatized?

Who the heck knows, which is a shame since over 90% of transit riders in the region live in the City of Chicago or the Cook County suburbs.

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