Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The (North) Suburban Transportation Commission--First Hearing

The Suburban Transportation Commission, with U.S. Representatives Kirk and Bean as co-chairs, held its first hearing last night. News reports are here, here and here.

Representative Kirk opened the hearing with a bang:

The region's transportation needs have for too long been Chicago-centered, and funding discussions have been dominated by the needs of the CTA, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said.

"Suburb-to-suburb commuting has increased by 56 percent, while traditional suburb-to-city commuting increased only 9 percent," Kirk said.

"Our transportation plans should set a priority on the needs of the new suburban majority where our economy is growing fastest."

. . .

Kirk took aim at the CTA's pension funding shortfall.

"No one is arguing against helping the CTA, but not at the expense of suburban commuters," he said.

Other speakers from Lake and McHenry Counties pitched the need for greater suburban representation on the RTA Board and for expanded paratransit service.

As one reporter summarized the meeting:

The gist of the proceedings at the Lake County Division of Transportation headquarters in Libertyville was the suburbs are the population and job centers of the Chicago region and deserve special attention.

Representative Kirk, for example, expressed concern that "of the sales tax revenue generated for transportation in Cook and the collar counties, the CTA receives 58 percent, Metra, 31 percent, and Pace, 11 percent." That may be true, but the CTA provides 80 percent of the public transit trips in the region. The speakers likewise pressed for more capital investment in suburban transit projects, again neglecting to mention that public transit ridership most likely will continue to be concentrated in high population density areas of the kind abhorred by most suburbanites, especially, it seems, in Lake County. Nor did anyone point out to the Commission that the RTA has been investing a much larger portion of transit capital dollars in Metra for years relative to Metra's trip share.

The Suburban Commission seems to be proceeding from the assumption that the population growth in the suburbs is sufficient to justify the kind of investment in public transit that makes sense in dense, urban areas. But even with this population growth, population density throughout most of the suburban region is still insufficient to support a sizable public transit system.

It is possible to foresee expanded and intensified Metra rail service linking suburban downtowns that are redeveloped for higher population densities using transit-oriented development principles. I suspect when the suburbanites say "transit" they really mean "Metra" for the most part. As noted previously, there is a suburban push to expand paratransit service, but the high cost of this kind of service will limit the amount of service that can be provided. As we see from Pace's anemic passenger trip performance, even with the high growth in population and jobs in the suburban areas over the past few decades, the demand for mainline bus service appears to be limited.

It is clear that suburban transit operations, be it by Metra rail, Pace bus, or paratransit, are very expensive because of the greater distances that must be traveled and the relatively low passenger loads. From published reports it does not appear that anyone on the Commission or who testified proposed how to fund the high operating costs that will follow on the heels of greater capital investment in suburban transit.

In addition to Representatives Kirk and Bean, the members of the Commision are state Sen. Michael Bond, D-Grayslake, state Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr., R-Mundelein, Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez, Round Lake Mayor Bill Gentes, Charlie Eldredge, director of the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation, and Chris Robling of Jayne Thompson and Associates. (Note that Representative Bean's press release does not include Robling, who drinks from the Pate Phillip well when it comes to city-suburban matters.)

All the public officials on the Commission hail from Lake and McHenry Counties. There are no representatives from DuPage, Will, Kane or suburban Cook Counties. Either last night's meeting was the start of a group that will grow to encompass suburban representatives from other areas, or the group should be renamed the "North Suburban Transportation Commission." If the exclusion of these other counties was deliberate, then the split between the north suburbs and the south suburbs, which was exposed by the appointment of Richard Kwasneski from Will County as Pace's chairman, may be more serious than imagined.

One last note. Representatives from Metra, Pace and the RTA testified before the Commission. Frank Kruesi, the CTA's President, was in attendance but apparently was not even invited to speak. The absence of several of the collar counties from the Commission and the Commission's apparent refusal to take testimony from the CTA call into question the Commission's claim to represent suburban interests and its professed desire to treat the CTA and the City of Chicago fairly. While Jim Reilly, the RTA's Chairman, made conciliatory gestures stressing regionalism and urging the focus to be on funding rather than governance, these words rang a bit hollow when the CTA--which I believe carries almost as many suburban riders as Pace and Metra combined--was denied an chance to address the Commission.

If I were Kruesi and got a earful of how the suburbs--living with the physical legacy of their low-density zoning decisions, its riders already enjoying a much higher per-trip public subsidy than Chicago riders, and in control of the Metra and Pace boards and but one vote away from completely controlling the RTA board--want more money for transit projects and more control over the region's public transit system I would be thinking one thought. That thought would be, should Chicago and some or all of the Cook County suburbs find a way to pull out of the RTA. How will the City of Chicago and the CTA benefit if the RTA concentrates its capital investment on the suburbs for the foreseeable future and the cost of running that expanded suburban transit system eats up operating subsidies that might otherwise be used to support the CTA and transit throughout Cook County. In other words, if the City of Chicago and suburban Cook County banded together would those areas be better off than if suburban Cook County allied itself with the collar counties and continued to subsidize transit investment and service in the collar counties.

Now, I'm all in favor of a regional transit system, but not at the price of continuing to under invest in the CTA, the core of the system. If McHenry and Kane Counties want to secede from the RTA system because of their dissatisfaction with the status quo, maybe the Suburban Transportation Commission and all it represents gives the City of Chicago and many of the Cook County suburbs reason enough to secede themselves.


Anonymous said...

Officially it is the Regional Transportation Authority. It acts more like the Regional Transit Association, kind of a lobbying organization on behalf of its members - Pace, Metra and CTA.

THe RTA leadership seems more than willing to lead a lobbying campaign for more funding. To bad they cant lead in other areas as well - such as establishing some kind of performance standards or system expansion priorities for its service providers; or even something as basic as leading the organization. The current RTA leadership always seems to look to others such as the Auditor General, Metropolitan Planning Commission, the "partners" or local officials to define its role. Does the RTA not have any ideas of its own? Either the RTA leadership is to weak to publicly state its own vision for the agency - out of fear of riling the members/service boards, or worse they really do not have any ideas.

Contrary to RTA BOard Chairman Jim Eeilly's recent comments, a debate about the RTA's role and responsibility vis-a-vis the service boards is exactly what is needed. Before a nickel of new money is sent the RTA's way

Anonymous said...

In a recent statement to the newly formed Suburban Transportation Commission, Metra Executive Director Phil Pagan acknowledged that Metra does not do a good job serving reverse or intersuburban commute markets. Nor will it in the future if Metra's current program of system expansions is any indication

1. Union Pacific West Line upgrade - $596 million
2. Union Pacific Northwest LIne upgrade - $223 million
3. SouthEast Service - $941 million
4. STAR Line - $2,000 million.

The Union Pacific lines are existing radial routes to downtown Chicago. The upgrades are no doubt needed to serve the traditional commute, but these lines are not proximate to major suburban employment centers and have few city stations; and are not well suited to serve the reverse and intersuburban commute.

The SouthEast Service is yet another radial line to downtown CHicago, in close proximity to an existing line - the electric district.

The STAR Line is intended to serve the intersuburban and reverse commute, but is not very compelling for that purpose. The STAR line in part will use railroad tracks laid down by the EJ&E Railroad - formerly a unit of United States Steel to move material between its plants in Gary Indiana and Waukegan. It cuts a wide arc around the region and was designed to bypass people and jobs over 100 years ago - which it still does to a large extent today. Consider that in DuPage alone, only about 20% of the jobs and people fall within a five mile buffer of the STAR line. Surely there are more compelling locations to begin a transit system for the suburbs.

The future of transit in the collar counties is probably in bus - specifically high performance Bus Rapid Transit which does not yet exist in the region, but is taking hold in other North American cities. Bus is more flexible than a railroad, and can rely on on an extensive network of tollways and arterials as shared use facilites.

The DuPage J seems to be a logical place to begin a suburban transit system at least in DuPage. It is proximate to major employment centers and appears to match up well with intersuburban travel patterns. Adding a connection tothe CTA Blue line would bring in reverse commuters from CHicago.

The STAR Line is a speculative boondoggle whose benefits have not been demonstrated. Can any readers shed light on how it emerged as a top priority for the region?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the commenter. THe RTA is unable or unwilling to lead anything other than a PR or lobbying campaign for funding.

It basically functions as a bank for its service boards.

Anonymous said...

Living in Kirk's district, I'm glad that someone is representing its interests. Frank Kruesi, when he was in power, did not.

Chicago Mike said...

I'm new to Chicago, but I was really disappointed to see the suburban transit system here doesn't really seem to exist. And the worst part is that there are so many job opportunities that exist in the suburbs.

I read on PACE's website that they have one of the largest vanpool systems in the country. 1.5 million people used this system in 2005, and that was before Representative Kirk's figure about a +50% increase in ridership. Surely, that says something about the demand for more scheduled service in the suburbs.

Here's my wish for the suburbs: I'd like to see a route within 20 minutes walking distance from every part of the suburbs. I know, it's a big hairy audacious goal, but it just might improve the Metra ridership while increasing access to the rest of Chicago.