Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Representative Hamos' RTA Funding Proposal--First Look

Here's the results of a half-hour glance at the funding component of Representative Hamos' RTA reform bill, Amendment No. 2 to Senate Bill 572.

-- Establishes and fund an Innovation, Coordination, and Enhancement Fund. The Fund will have $30 million the first year and that funding will increase by 3% annually.

-- Exempts $200 million in costs from the recovery ratio calculation in FY 2008. This will make it much easier for the service boards to meet their recovery ratio requirements and the RTA to meeting the 50% recovery ratio requirements. After FY 2008 this plug number goes down by $20 million a year.

-- Increases the Cook County RTA tax from 1.0% to 1.25% and the collar county tax from 0.25% to 0.75%.

-- Imposes a real estate transfer tax in the City of Chicago only of $1.25 for each $500 of value. The Moving Beyond Congestion Final Report (pg. 94 of 140) indicates that this would raise approximately $232.5 million annually. (Interesting that this is almost equal to the CTA's projected 2007 operating deficit of $226 million.)

-- Makes major changes to the statutory formula for the distribution of RTA tax revenue in new section 4.03.3. These changes include:
  • Currently, the RTA takes 15% off the top of the sales tax collection throughout the six-county region. Much of this money becomes RTA discretionary operating funds that the RTA funnels to the CTA. Under the bill the RTA's share from the collar counties would be 15% of one third of the tax collected in the collar counties. This would have the effect of keeping the collar county contributions to the RTA at current levels even though the RTA tax rate in the collar counties will triple.
  • The current allocation formula among the service boards for the money left over after the RTA takes its cut remains unchanged in Chicago and in suburban Cook County. In the collar counties, the current allocation formula applies to only one third of the collar county tax receipts. This has the effect of keeping the amounts distributed to Pace and Metra from the collar counties by statutory formula at current levels. Suburban Cook County, it appears, will be paying more to the service boards via statutory formula, further cementing its role as bankroller of the transit system.
  • The collar counties will each keep the remaining third of their RTA tax collections--roughly $125 million--for road and transit purposes at the discretion of each county board.
  • All of the Chicago real estate transfer tax money plus other money collected in suburban Cook County and the collar counties will be put in a pot and then distributed in the following order: ADA paratransit; the Innovation, Coordination, and Enhancement Fund; to the service boards as follows: CTA--60%; Metra--30%; Pace 10%.
This is just a quick look. There is nothing on the capital side. As of this evening the two amendments were assigned to the House Mass Transit Committee.

RTA Funding Proposal and Pandering

The funding component of Representative Hamos's bill has emerged as Amendment No. 2 to Senate Bill 572.

The Amendment has already set off alarm bells in suburban circles. The Daily Herald has a story authored by Eric Krol and John Patterson entitled "Suburbs May Bail Out CTA," a title that is sure to get the blood pressure rising among the Herald's readership base.

The article leads with this statement:

Suburban residents would pay more in sales tax to keep CTA buses and trains running as part of a last-minute bailout Chicago interests are pushing in Springfield.

It goes on to state that "RTA leaders aren’t saying publicly how that money would be divided up, but in planning documents the agency suggests 60 percent of the tax increase go to the CTA, 30 percent to Metra and 10 percent to Pace."

Since the CTA carries about 80 percent of the public transit riders in the RTA system, how exactly is this a bailout of the CTA by suburban residents, many of whom ride the CTA and many of whom would face significantly more congestion but for the CTA when they drive in Chicago and nearby suburbs.

The article closes with this statement:

Given the larger fight at the Capitol over taxes and spending on education and health care, it’s unclear whether the RTA push has much momentum. Still, it is part of an overall RTA push to tilt the balance of power toward the city and away from the suburbs when it comes to controlling finances and budgeting.

How exactly is the RTA pushing to "tilt the balance of power toward the city and away from the suburbs." The RTA has not pushed for any reduction in suburban representation on the RTA Board or on the boards of any of the service boards. The suburbs currently control seven of the twelve RTA board slots that are apportioned on a geographic basis. This means that the increased powers that will be vested in the RTA as a result of Representative Hamos' RTA reform bill will redound to the suburbs.

The article could have just as accurately been entitled "Cook County Residents May Bail Out Collar County Pace Service," but that headline wouldn't have been nearly so pandering.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Last Minute-itis

Representative Julie Hamos' amended RTA reform bill has evolved from concept to legislation. It is now Amendment No. 1 to Senate Bill 572. This should be the bill to watch. In a blast email Representative Hamos states that "We are in the process of drafting amendments that will address funding and CTA pension reform." The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn in 48 hours. Plenty of time!

* * *
Amendment No. 1 addresses RTA oversight issues. For reasons set out here, here and here, the bill is disappointingly modest in its scope. Isn't it a bit naive to think that absent some major change in personnel--from the board level down--the RTA will be just as unwilling or unable to exercise these new powers as it was to exercise its existing powers over the previous 25 years?

It appears that Amendment No. 1 leaves intact some of the key provisions of the RTA Act that have rankled politicians and the public for years. These include:

-- The division of the RTA into City of Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar county zones for purpose of allocating RTA, Pace and Metra service board memberships and sales tax revenue.

-- The large difference between the Cook County (1%) and collar county (0.25%) RTA sales tax rate.

-- The allocation of RTA board seats based upon population, including the requirement that the board seats be reallocated every 10 years, something the General Assembly has failed to do despite a statutory requirement that it be done by July of 2003.

-- The allocation of Metra board seats based on morning boardings, which is obviously skewed against representation from the City of Chicago.

-- The statutory allocation of sales tax revenue among the three service boards, which leaves the CTA chronically dependent on RTA discretionary funds and which results in aberrations such as Metra getting zero RTA sales tax dollars from the City of Chicago despite the important service Metra provides in the City.

Maybe upcoming amendments will deal with some of these issues.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Doom and Boom!


The CTA unveiled its doomsday service cuts if additional operating funding is not forthcoming. News reports here, here and here.


The RTA has finally gotten off the proverbial pot (or maybe taken the other course!) and outlined a funding plan that relies primarily upon a 0.25% rate increase in the RTA sales tax in Cook County (to 1.25%) and a 0.50% rate increase in the collar counties (to 0.75%). However, half of the collar county increase (i.e., 0.25%, $120 million annually) will go into a transportation improvement fund that the collar counties can use for roads, transit, capital improvements and operating subsidies.

Professional and personal obligations prevent me from discussing for a few days. Have at it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Transit System Expansion: Are We Kidding Ourselves?

Here's a link to a recent study by the Reason Foundation entitled "Density in Atlanta: Implications for Traffic and Transit." The study looks at how Atlanta has developed and addresses the question whether the city be able to support a robust transit system in the foreseeable future.

The study found that Atlanta has extremely low population densities relative to other world cities. Like other North American cities, including Chicago, Atlanta's population density is amazingly low. Here are selected population densities on a per hectare basis:

Atlanta: 6
Chicago: 16
San Francisco: 19
Washington D.C.: 21
Los Angeles: 22
New York: 40
London: 62
Paris: 88
Singapore: 107
Beijin: 145
Barcelona: 171
Moscow: 182
Seoul: 322

Assuming a hectare equals .00386 of a square mile, this translates into a population density of 1,554 persons per square mile in Atlanta and 4,145 persons per square mile in Chicago.

The study also found that jobs in the Atlanta area are dispersed and that this dispersal of jobs make the built environment even more hostile to transit.

The study used 7,800 persons per square mile as the minimum density level for a robust transit system. It also stressed that concentrated job centers--e.g., a strong central business district--is key to a strong transit system.

In a somewhat amusing exercise, the authors described what it would take Atlanta to provide its citizens with the same level of transit access as that afforded to people living in Barcelona, a somewhat comparable city in terms of size and role in the global economy--2,100 miles of new rail tracks and 2,800 new rail stations! It then described the kind of Stalinist measures that would be necessary to shrink the physical size of the Atlanta area to generate the population density sufficient to support an expansive transit system.

This region is a bit better off than Atlanta when it comes to a transit-supportive environment, but that isn't saying much. The population density in the Chicago area is still well below the 7,800 per square mile benchmark used in the article. We do have the benefit of a still strong central business district that is a major transit trip generator.

Nevertheless, this article suggests that expanding the public transit system in much of this region is a futile gesture over the next few decades, as Pace has found to its dismay over the past 25 years. How about this as a program:

1. Focus on providing transit to work service in three major regional employment centers: Chicago CBD; O'Hare-Schaumburg corridor; and I-88 corridor (the last two suggested by a commentator). This primarily means more robust Metra service to those areas plus bus feeder service in the suburban employment areas.

2. Focus resources on improving the quality of transit service in regions where population densities are sufficient to support intensive transit service and where there is the greatest chance of people foregoing cars as their primary mode of transportation. This is primarily but not exclusively in the City of Chicago. The STAR Line likely dies--certainly the stretch from Joliet up to I-90. The DuPage J line likely stays and might mature into a useful connection between the O'Hare and I-88 employment corridors.

3. Make the expansion of transit service in all other areas dependent upon sufficient densities of jobs and employment to make that service viable. Use transit service as a carrot to encourage local governments to support denser development.

My hunch is that this program would so alienate many areas of the collar counties that they would object strenuously to continued financial participation in the RTA system. Thus, the RTA region may have to shrink so that there is a better fit between those areas where transit makes sense and those areas where it does not.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Transit Energy Efficiency: A Myth?

One of the principles of faith held by supporters of public transit is that public transit is more energy efficient than the private auto. I certainly thought that to be the case. The RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion Final Report states that public transit is about "twice as efficient as private vehicles" in terms of energy use (pg. 11 of 140).

The most recent edition of the National Traffic Statistics casts some doubt on this article of faith. Table 4-20 has comparative data on British Thermal Unit (Btu) per passenger mile. It shows that over time bus transit's comparative advantage in energy efficiency over the passenger car and even the aircraft has shrunk almost to zero. Here's a summary of the data:

BTUs Per Passenger Mile

Aircraft (Domestic Flights)
1980 5,742
1990 4,932
2000 3,883
2003 3,463

Passenger Car
1980 4,348
1990 4,269
2000 3,589
2003 3,570

Transit Bus
1980 2,742
1990 3,723
2000 4,147
2003 3,496

The data appear to be a bit wiggly, as many of the recent figures are "revised." Nonetheless, it shows that on a per passenger mile basis in 1980 aircraft travel consumed 2.1 times and passenger car travel consumed 1.6 times the energy as travel by transit bus. By the year 2000 travel by bus transit consumed more energy on a passenger mile basis than both travel by aircraft (1.1x) and passenger car (1.2x). Since 2000 it appears that transit's energy efficiency has improved on a passenger mile basis. It is a bit better than the private car but still less efficient than domestic air travel.

What accounts for the long-term deterioration in bus transit's energy efficiency on a passenger mile basis? First, the fuel economy gains for bus transit appear to have been less (plus/minus 16.7 percent--data is inconsistent) over the past 25 years than the fuel economy gains for the private car (43.1 percent).

Second, passenger loads have dropped significantly. In 1980 the passenger load was 17.4. In 2004 that figure dropped to 11.0. (I derived passenger load by dividing total passenger miles into total vehicle miles.)

In other words, it appears over the past 25 years public transit agencies have rolled out significantly more service relative to demand and used vehicles that have become less fuel efficient on a comparative basis with the private car. Has the long association of energy efficiency with transit become a shibboleth or have I mangled the data unforgivably?

Universal Fare Card: Zeno's Paradox Illustrated

Zeno's paradox involving a race between Achilles and the tortoise seems to be playing out in real life as the RTA tries to catch up with its long-standing promise to bring a universal fare card to the region and never seems to make it.

It seems like just yesterday (actually April 15, 2007) when the Chicago Tribune (and other media outlets) reported that the RTA and the service boards were finally working together and that the "All-Transit Card is On The Way." Here's the Tribune's summary:

Commuters in the Chicago area may soon have the means to make transferring between trains and buses much easier: a single fare card that works on Metra, CTA and Pace.

After a long history of resisting the idea, the agencies are putting the finishing touches on a plan to offer a joint transit pass, officials confirmed.

The card would likely be a hybrid of Metra's monthly pass and the fare card now used by the CTA.

Creation of the new integrated transit pass, which officials plan to announce in the coming weeks, is expected to be popular with riders who have long complained about the inconvenience of the current system.

State legislators and transit watchdog groups for years have criticized CTA and Metra officials for accentuating the differences in their operations rather than focusing on giving riders seamless transit connections and a simplified fare structure.

Even Phil Pagano, the head of the ultra-conservative Metra ("what, bikes on trains"), sounded positively giddy at the prospects of a universal fare card:

Pagano said officials hope to have a working proposal completed within the next 30 days so it could be presented to CTA, Metra and Pace directors. He acknowledged that having better fare coordination among transit agencies has long been a concern of the public.

"If we can work this through, I think it's a good first step" toward providing fare coordination, Pagano said. "Fare coordination and [system] integration are important for our riders."

Alas, 'tis not to be. Today, only five weeks after the latest promise of the fare card at the end of the tunnel, the RTA announced it was deferring $7.5 million in spending to help close the "looming $226 million budget deficit." Among the projects deferred are "efforts to implement a universal fare card."

Apparently, the idea of a universal fare card has been around for over 30 years, dating from when the RTA was established via a referendum. This blogger still can't get over that vote and the broken promise of universal fare card.

It looks like the $7.5 million freed up by the RTA for operating subsidies will not go unused. The CTA announced that its budget deficit in the first quarter of 2007 was $8 million higher than expected. Ouch!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Where Are Those People?

Here's an excerpt from a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that discusses the transit funding challenges facing Pennsylvania transit agencies:

Elsewhere. More than 700 organizations and 15,000 individuals are signed up to advocate for more funding for public transit in Chicago, which faces a $110 million deficit for the second half of this year.

Where are those organizations? Where are those people? Is it my imagination or is the public resigned to a major restructuring of the CTA that will include service reductions and fare increases? Based on the volume of disparaging comments I hear about empty Pace buses, will any significant number of people care if Pace's mainline service dwindles and it focuses on paratransit service? Is Metra the only transit agency with the financial resources and public support to escape a major restructuring?

London, Paris, Chicago: Transit Funding

Siemens AG has published a study entitled "Megacity Challenges: A Stakeholder's Perspective." The study found that investment in transportation infrastructure is the highest infrastructure priority of most cities and that rail transit typically receives the highest level of investment.

An earlier post looked at the operating funding levels for public transit in three such cities, Paris, London and Chicago. The Siemens study provides additional data against which we can benchmark this region's level of support for public transit against two urban areas in similarly developed countries:

Population: 9.2 million
Area: 2600 sq. kilometers
Transit operating funding (2005): $4,986,000,000
Funding per person: $542
Funding per sq. kilometer: $1,917,695

Population: 7.6 million
Area: 1600 sq. kilometers
Transit operating funding (2005): $7,804,000,000
Funding per person: $1,027
Funding per sq. kilometer: $4,877,500

Population: 9.2 million
Area: 8000 kilometers
Transit operating funding (2005): $1,685,000,000
Funding per person: $183
Funding per sq. kilometer: $210,625

This data indicates that on a per person basis this region's operating support of public transit would have to increase threefold just to reach Paris levels and roughly sixfold to reach London levels. I guess quality transit systems are nice places for we Chicagoans to visit but we sure don't want to pay for one here.

I wonder if our failure to invest as heavily in public transit as London and Paris harms the economic competitiveness of this region, as the SEPTA system study suggests, or whether we are better off using the money we don't spend on public transit on other things?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Economic Impact of Service Cuts and Fare Increases

The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia has released a report on the economic impact of the service cuts and fare increases that SEPTA will impose if the state legislature does not come up with funding to fix a $130 million budget shortfall. The report is entitled "The Price of Inaction: An Analysis of Economic Impacts Associated with SEPTA's FY 2008 Operating Budget "Plan B" Alternative" and was prepared by Econsult Corporation.

The report paints a dire picture of the economic impact of shrinking the SEPTA system and raising fares. Note that SEPTA's budget shortfall is about the same as the CTA's 2007 budget shortfall. Does anyone have a sense whether this study of the impact of the SEPTA cuts is reasonable and whether the conclusions are transferable to this region? The key findings are that the SEPTA budget cuts would:
  • Cost current transit riders an additional $182 million annually through higher fares and longer wait times.
  • Cost drivers and additional $38.9 million because of increased congestion and the higher cost of driving.
  • Cause the five counties in Southeastern Pennsylvania to lose 14,500 jobs and $868.5 million in net earnings.
  • Depreciate property values by about 6.5 percent regionwide, a net value reduction of over $7 billion.
  • Reduce state and local tax collections by about $90 million annually.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Local Transit Advocacy Groups

The financial challenges facing the northeastern Illinois public transit agencies and the the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion initiative have stimulated several public transit advocacy groups. Here's a listing in no particular order of the advocacy groups of which I am aware. Who's missing from this list? How do you rate the effectiveness of each of these groups?

Save Chicagoland Transit
Associated with the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Good source for links to current news. Nice webpage.

Transit Future Coalition
Associated with the Center for Neighborhood Technology. Actively lobbying in Springfield.

Chicago Metropolis 2020
As mainstream as it gets. Very solid recent report on transit funding options.

Illinois PIRG
Any activity on transit funding issues?

Citizens Taking Action
Any activity?

Business Leaders for Transportation
Joint creation of Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago Metropolis 2020 and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

The Campaign for Better Transit
Died earlier this year but still valuable website.

Transportation for Illinois Coalition
Joint venture between Illinois Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It's Tough For Transit All Over

The financial challenges facing the RTA and the three service boards are hardly unique. Public transit systems around the country are facing tough times:
  • A recent blue ribbon study found that the MBTA in Boston is overly burdened by debt and its operating revenue growth is lagging well behind projections and the actual growth in operating expenses.
  • In California, the Governor's proposed budget cuts $1.3 billion from public transit and uses the money to to pay for school busing, transportation for the disabled and paying down the debt on transportation bonds.
  • The New York, the MTA projects operating deficits growing from $800 million in 2008 to $1.8 billion in 2010.
  • In Philadelphia, SEPTA faces a $130 million operating deficit and predicts that without financial help from the state legislature it "will raise fares by an average of 31 percent, cut service by 20 percent, and lay off 300 to 400 employees." (A sign of the magnitude of what to expect from the CTA's upcoming doomsday plans?) The SEPTA board is set to vote on the doomsday budget on May 24.

Free the Transit Four!

Today's Sun-Times editorial is entitled "Stop Holding Transit Hostage in Springfield." The gist of the editorial is that the efforts by the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace to extract more money from the State of Illinois are being held up by the Governor:

In fact, the governor is essentially holding mass transit hostage, promising to help find more money for it only if lawmakers support his controversial new tax. With that tax plan going nowhere, it appears likely that transit funding is at risk. But it shouldn't be.

The editorial praises the Metropolis 2020 group for its recent report suggesting a variety of ways to raise more money for transit in the six-county RTA region:

But last week, the business group Chicago Metropolis 2020 picked up the baton and called on Springfield to make mass transit funding a priority. The group even stuck its neck out and recommended specific tax increases, coupled with reforms that would give the RTA more authority and make all the agencies more accountable.

The group said it favored using a combination of a regional gas tax, a boost in the regional sales tax, a widening of the sales tax to include consumer services and a tax on nonresidential off-street parking. In addition, it called for the three agencies to implement an integrated fare system with fares that vary based on factors such as distance, speed and time of day. The group said one of the principles on which it based its recommendations is that the beneficiaries of the new investment -- drivers and mass transit users -- should be directly involved in paying for it.

Two observations:

1. Isn't it unfair to single out the Governor as the hostage-taker? Not one of the legislative leaders from either side of the aisle has stepped forward and made transit a priority. Nor have any of them made a tax proposal as specific as the Governor's proposal. What does the Sun-Times expect, transit funding to materialize out of thin air? Indeed, has the Governor made any statement opposing regional taxes and fees to support the RTA system? Has anyone asked him?

2. The Metropolis 2020 report and the Sun-Times editorial may hint that regional revenue generating measures to fund public transit may be increasingly viable solutions now that the Governor and the General Assembly seem disinclined to increase State funding for public transit in this region. These measures include increasing the RTA sales tax rate, expanding the reach of that tax, fare increases, and taxes on gas and parking spaces. Raising $2.4 billion a year in the six-county area equates to roughly $285 per year per person in the region, over $1,000 per family of four.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Infrastructure Investment and Lack Thereof

The Urban Land Institute and Ernest & Young, LLP have released a study entitled "Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective." It is available for free here or you can pay $39.95 here.

The report is another sobering study of the failure of the United States to adequately invest in its infrastructure. Note on page 20 of 69 of the report there is a comparison of the 2005 annual operating budgets for the public transit systems in three world cities of similar populations and gross domestic product (in millions):

London: $7,804

Paris: $4,986

Chicago: $1,685

Let's see. If the City of Chicago and Cook County double their operating subsidies for public transit the operating budget for the Chicago system will go all the way up to $1,690!

The report takes a jaundiced view of the suburban sprawl development model and argues that cities that have embraced such a model (e.g., Atlanta) are likely to fare relatively poorly in the global economy. The report argues that regions that lack centralized land-use and transportation planning are likely to succumb to such sprawl and find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Too bad Representative Hamos has failed to include in her RTA reform bill any requirement that public transit investment be tied to aggressive transit-oriented land-use polices. Her bill's failure to do so condemns us to yet more rounds of suburban demands for more and very expensive transit service in areas that the suburbs themselves have allowed to develop in a manner that is inhospitable to public transit. It is a shame that she and her RTA workgroup apparently lacked the political will to confront the forces--local governments and developers--who are all to willing to let the Chicago region sprawl from Kankakee to Rockford.

Here's a summary of the report from the Wall Street Journal:

The Property Report: U.S. Infrastructure Found to Be in Disrepair—Higher Taxes Are Forecast To Meet Investment Need; Reconsidering Cities
The Wall Street Journal
May 9, 2007
Thaddeus Herrick

Airports, roads, rail, bridges and other transit infrastructure are deteriorating across the U.S. because of insufficient investment, according to a report.

Chicago needs $6 billion to bring its subways into good repair, says the report to be released today by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young LLP. Rehabilitation or replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City could cost as much as $14.5 billion. And in Atlanta, current rush-hour trips by car could take 75% longer by 2030.

The report, entitled "Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective," says the failure to address what the co-authors call an emerging crisis in mobility will undermine the ability of the U.S. to compete internationally. "At some point, the system is going to grind to a halt," says Dale Ann Reiss, global director of real estate at the New York-based Ernst & Young accounting firm and vice chairman of the Urban Land Institute, a land-use think tank in Washington.

More foreboding, the report warns that further inaction will lead to disasters on the magnitude of the levee failures in Hurricane Katrina.

The report underscores the broader disrepair of transit, power and water systems in the U.S. In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded as "poor" the condition of the nation's transit infrastructure as well as power grids, dams and systems for drinking water and wastewater. The U.S. faces a $1.6 trillion deficit in needed infrastructure spending through 2010 for repairs and maintenance, today's report says.

A lack of political will because of fear of raising taxes is mainly responsible for the shortfall, the report says. It predicts an array of higher taxes but also says help is needed from the private sector and public-private partnerships, which it predicts will help fund, construct, operate and manage transit projects. Investment funds sponsored by global investment banks, private-equity firms and institutional money managers are becoming a rapidly expanding source of capital for everything from toll roads to bridges to tunnels, especially in Europe and the United Kingdom, the report says.

"We have a lot to learn from other parts of the world," says Ms. Reiss, who is to present the study at an Urban Land Institute meeting in Chicago. The U.S. encourages automobile dependency, according to the report, while a number of other countries are pursuing transportation alternatives. The report says there were more than 750 cars per 1,000 people in the U.S. as of 2000, while the number was just over 500 cars per 1,000 in the U.K. No amount of investment will be adequate if driving continues to be the only practical transportation option in the U.S., the report says.

Meanwhile, Japan has 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of high-speed rail and is building 300 additional kilometers by 2020, the study says. China is building more than 2,500 kilometers. The U.S. has only 300 kilometers of high-speed rail and none under construction. The cost for the U.S. to catch up: at least $250 billion over the next 20 years.

The study urges leaders and planners to reconsider the way U.S. cities are built, with hub-and-spoke systems to better handle mass transit. It also suggests infill housing and mixed-use development to reduce dependence on cars, especially in Sun Belt cities such as Houston, where the average commuter already drives 39 miles a day.

Some states are taking action. California, for example, passed a $37 billion state public-works bond measure last year, earmarking $20 billion for transport, $10 billion for school construction, $4 billion for levees and $3 billion for affordable housing built near mass transit. As a result, though, about 6% of the state's general-fund tax revenues will be needed to pay debt service, a relatively high level.

Not surprisingly, the greatest action is occurring in emerging economies. Annually, China spends 9% of its gross domestic product on infrastructure, while India spends 3.5%, the report says. While the U.S. doesn't face such massive infrastructure buildup, it still needs to spend more on maintenance. It spends just .93% of its GDP, or $112.9 billion, according to the study.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Revised Hamos Bill Emerges

Representative Julie Hamos has released a revised draft of her so-called RTA reform bill (HB 1841).

The draft amended bill is here. The summary is here. The revised bill will be discussed at the third meeting of the RTA Reform Workgroup meeting this Wednesday, May 16 at 8 a.m. in Room 413 of the Stratton Building. You can also email comments to Representative Hamos at Email comments must be sent by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

(It sure would be nice if someone supplied their notes from the second meeting of the Workgroup as well as of this upcoming meeting. Minutes of the first meeting are here.)

Here are some highlights (references are to RTA Act):
  • The RTA is explicitly given the powers "set goals, objectives and standards" for the service boards, "develop performance measures," "allocate operating and capital funds," and "coordinate the provision of public transportation and the investment in public transportation facilities." (2.01(a))
  • While the service boards retain the power to determine the "level, nature and kind of public transportation" in their service areas, they must do so "in order to meet the plans, goals, objectives and standards" adopted by the RTA. (2.01(a))
  • The RTA shall audit each service board at least once every five years. (2.01(b))
  • The RTA shall adopt a stategic plan every five years. The strategic plan "shall establish the process and criteria by which proposals for capital improvements . . . will be evaluated by the [RTA] for inclusion in the Five-Year Capital Program" and establish performance standards. The RTA may establish "sub-regional or corridor plans." The RTA has "sole responsibility" for conducting alternatives analyses and preliminary environmental assessments on capital projects where multiple service boards are potential service providers and cost is over $25 million. (2.01a)
  • The RTA gets 10 percent all new money for a "Innovation, Coordination and Enhancement Fund." (2.01c)
  • The RTA takes charge of "coordinated and consolidated sales, marketing, advertising and public information programs." (2.05(c))
  • The RTA Executive Director resolves fare, surface overlap, transfer policy and other such disputes between service boards, subject to veto only by a supermajority vote of RTA board. (2.12)
  • The RTA prescribes the information that the service boards must submit during the annual budget process and the service board budgets must be "consistent with the goals and objectives adopted by the [RTA] in the Strategic Plan." If the RTA rejects a service board's budget the service board loses 25 percent of its statutory sales tax allocation. The RTA board also has line item veto power over service board budgets. (4.11(b))

Sunday, May 13, 2007

CTA Service Cuts and Bus Tracker

Ron Huberman, the CTA's new President, stated that Mayor Daley told him to make consistent service, cleanliness and courtesy the CTA's top goals.

Huberman has started by cutting managerial job positions and implementing some other efficiencies. These moves will save $12.5 million, which is a small fraction of the amount of additional operating subsidies that the CTA is seeking from the General Assembly.

Unless the RTA's Moving Beyond Congest initiative bears rich fruit for the CTA and the other service board--an unlikely prospect at this point--Huberman is going to have cut back on CTA service levels significantly. The Auditor General, after all, found that over the past five years the CTA added more service when it lacked the funds to pay for that service.

Perhaps the CTA's Bus Tracker system provides an opportunity to make substantial service cuts without seriously inconveniencing customers.

When customers have no information about when the next bus (or train) arrives they must stand out at the bus stop and wait for the bus to arrive. This wait time lengthens the total trip time significantly. Consequently, in order to have any chance of retaining a significant number of customers public transit operators like the CTA have to run buses at no more than a 15-20 minute interval. As a result, during off hours and on less heavily patronized routes we see buses running at regular 15-20 minute intervals carrying relatively few people. The CTA must lose a great deal of money on such routes during these low-patronage periods.

The Bus Tracker system allows the CTA much more flexibility to cut service on these low-partronage/off peak routes. So long as people can readily access Bus Tracker and know for certain when the next bus is coming, bus intervals of say once an hour become possible. Sure there are fewer buses, but with Bus Tracker people will have the assurance that they can catch a bus without an extended wait. It may be irrational, but I suspect people can more easily accepting planning around a one hour interval if they know their maximum wait at the bus stop is 5 minutes than if the buses are scheduled at 20 minute intervals but the customer has no idea if and when the bus will be arriving.

Bus Tracker in its current form is clunky and slow. It took some time to load on both Firefox and Safari browers via a DSL line. (It is obviously decaffeinated Java they are using.) But it is a start and it will take only $24 million to roll it out system wide.

Now imagine some folks (open source community?) who know how to create simple, elegant user-friendly software got a crack at the Bus Tracker software with the goal of making bus arrival times ubiquitous:
  • Screen savers that show arrival times for your selected bus route(s) and eliminate the need to navigate to the CTA Tracker site and wait for software to download.
  • Email notifications of bus arrival times that customers can set up easily by computer or cellphone.
  • Automated phone call notifications set up in the same way.
  • Dashboard programs (Windows Vista has a knockoff) that provide easy access to bus arrival times.
  • A phone number customers can call and use text or automated voice systems to get bus arrival times.
I'm not a geek, so I'm sure there may be other ways to push bus arrival time information out to the public with the goal that no one is farther than a computer or cellphone away from accurate, real-time bus arrival times.

Let's say that it takes another $24 million to implement these initiatives and that the CTA gets away from the proprietary software model and leverages the talent of the open source community to develop some decent software. For a total investment of about $50 million, the CTA gets much more than than just a new customer service tool. It also gets a way to cut service without adversely impacting the now much better informed and empowered customer.

I suspect that over the course of a 2-3 years the CTA could realize at least $50 million in savings by scaling back bus intervals throughout its system. This would be an attractive ROI for the investment in Bus Tracker. It would give Huberman a chance to show that the CTA is responding appropriately to the Auditor General's finding that the CTA's service levels are excessive relative to its financial resources. And if Bus Tracker realizes its promise of making bus arrival time information ubiquitous for the customer, the CTA's customer service reputation will not take a hit.

In other words, Bus Tracker might just deserve being one of the top three items on Huberman's priority list.

Next up in this area: Just in time bus dispatching in response to customer on-line "orders" for transit service. Let folks who need a bus use their cellphone or computer to say when and in what direction they need a bus. When there is sufficient customer interest on a route the CTA dispatches a bus and sends each customer a notice it is coming. If interest is insufficient to warrant a bus, then the CTA tells them to use alternative means--e.g., another bus route in the area, a taxi, or the friendly neighborhood jitney service (but that is another story as well).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Transit Systems as the "New Agora"

Let's take a break from the quitodian news of (somewhat illusory) job cuts at the CTA, speculation that the Governor has added transit to his priority list, and the somewhat pitiful efforts of a group of Chicago alderman (where was the Mayor?) to lobby on behalf of increased public transit funding.

So here's a link to a zippy recent article in the Boston Globe with the extended title of "From Boston to Brazil, city planners and transportation gurus are reimagining the possibilities of the humble motorbus, using high-tech 'smart mobility' to challenge the preeminence of the car -- and revive the urban commons."

The article summarizes some of the innovations in bus transit from around the world. Examples include on-board Wi-Fi in Seattle, real-time bus arrival information kiosks in London, bus stop (rather than on-bus) fare payment in Curitiba, and extensive traffic signal prioritization in Los Angeles. What is especially exciting is the innovative approach to public transit that drives these technical innovations:

At the heart of much of the new thinking is a concept that some urban planners call "smart mobility" -- integrating the flow of people with the flow of information. Whereas transit companies have traditionally seen their passengers as ciphers who want nothing more than to be physically moved from one place to another, the future of transit reform lies in seeing these passengers as active participants in a constantly evolving information cluster. The transportation system should share as much information with passengers as possible -- how buses are flowing, when the next one is expected. It should give passengers access to information about the outside world -- from international news, to e-mail, to data about the passing neighborhoods. And passengers, in turn, should be empowered to share information with the system and, if they want, with fellow riders.

The article goes on to describe the somewhat extravagant claim that public transit systems are the "new agora" in sprawling urbanized regions where people are isolated and alienated:

Good bus systems have the power to improve states and cities in a deep way, enthusiasts say. From the time of the first motor-driven bus, introduced by Karl Benz in 1895 in Germany, the bus and other forms of mass transit have literally moved people across cities divided by race and class. Now, as telecommuting and suburban expansion are making urban life increasingly decentralized, these thinkers argue that the bus and the subway lines are the new agora -- that they represent one of the few remaining urban commons. Boosted by the latest technology, they say, riding the bus should be as rich an experience as possible.

(What, have these folks never been to a shopping mall!)

There appears to be a persistent strain of thought associated with Anthony Downs that traffic congestion is inevitable and likely to get worse. This congestion may offer a market opportunity for public transit by bus, but only if it can-

(A) reduce public transit's speed disadvantage through a variety of tactics such as dedicated lanes (including HOT lanes available to others), traffic signal prioritization and real-time bus arrival information that reduces wait-times; and

(B) make the experience of riding the bus more interesting and pleasurable by exploiting the fact that one big comparative advantage of the bus is that you can do stuff other than driving.

Our public transit providers have a decided institutional preference for Type A initiatives because these initiatives are consistent with the "passengers as ciphers who want nothing more than to be physically moved from one place to another" model that still predominates.

Maybe it is time to give equal emphasis to Type B solutions, especially with the advent of devices like the iPhone that gives you internet connectivity in the palm of your hand. Transit agencies could put out the rolling internet/software platform and turn loose the open source community to come up with all sorts of applications--e.g., social networking ("who's on my bus"), area attractions ("free cup of coffee at Joe's next stop"), predicted time of arrival, on-board multi-player games that any rider can join. Maybe if buses became the place to go to connect with the world and a very temporary rolling "community," rather than one of life's dead zones, people would be less mindful of the slow progress of their bus down the crowded streets.

We'll get quotidian again soon.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Metropolis 2020 Proposal: RTA Governance

The recently released Metropolis 2020 Proposal has some interesting suggestions for changing the governance structure of the RTA and the service boards. There are three recommendations that apply generally:
  • The RTA Board would select a voting member for each of the boards of the service boards.
  • The Chairmen of all three service boards should become non-voting RTA directors.
  • Representatives from each service board should serve as non-voting members on the boards of the other service boards (e.g., Pace representatives sit on the CTA and Metra boards).
The Proposal recommends eliminating the one man/one vote requirement for the allocation of RTA board seats among the three areas that make up the RTA region--Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the collar counties--now found in section 3.01(h) of the RTA Act. The Proposal recommends the following changes to the current 13-member RTA Board:
  • City: The Mayor of Chicago will get two new appointments to the RTA Board but the CTA Chairman will become a non-voting member. (Net gain of one seat, from 5 to 6 appointments).
  • Suburban Cook County: No change--4 seats
  • Counties: Each county board chairman would get to appoint an RTA Board member (Gain of two seats, from three to five seats, for the collar counties. Gain of one seat for Cook County as a whole)
  • Governor: One appointment, up from zero.
These changes would increase the size of the RTA Board from 13 to 18 voting members, including the Chairman, who presumably would continue to be selected by the other RTA Board members.

The RTA Act currently imposes a nine-vote supermajority requirement for major RTA decisions, such as the selection of the Chairman, approval of the service board operating budgets and adoption of the RTA's capital program. The current supermajority requirement gives the four Chicago appointees plus the CTA Chairman veto power over these major RTA decisions. (That veto power will be lost if the RTA Board seats are reallocated among the City of Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties based on the 2000 Census, as was required to have been done by July 2003 under the current RTA Act.)

The Proposal does not address whether the expanded RTA Board would have a supermajority requirement for certain important decisions and, if so, what that requirement would be. The current supermajority requirement is at 69.2% (i.e., 9/13). If we apply this percentage to the proposed 18 RTA Board members, the supermajority requirement would be calculated as follows:

18 board members x .692 = 12.456 members

If this is rounded down to 12 RTA Board members, then no geographically-based voting bloc would have veto power by itself. The City is likely to put strong pressure on the General Assembly to round up to a 13 vote supermajority requirement if this proposal sees the light of legislative day. This would allow the City to retain its current veto power.

The General Assembly should resist this pressure and set a supermajority requirement that is low enough so that no area has veto power but still high enough to ensure that a solid majority of the RTA Board is in favor of the measure. A 12-vote supermajority satisfies both conditions. If no area has veto power then the representatives from each area must build relationships and coalitions with representatives from other areas. That is generally a healthy thing on a public board with responsibilities of a region-wide nature.

Is Chicago a "World City"?

In researching for a previous post I found a report that concluded that the gross domestic product of the Chicago area was the fourth largest in the world, after Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles. Over the next 15 years, the Chicago region's GDP is expected to grow at a 2.3% annual rate, at bit faster than the New York and Los Angeles areas. By 2020 Chicago's GDP will have increased from $460 billion to $645 billion and the Chicago metropolitan area will rank fifth in the world as measured by GDP (London, currently in the number six position, will leapfrog Paris and Chicago to take the number four position).

Another publication, Foreign Direct Investment, identified Chicago as the leading "City of the Future" in the United States. The positive description of this region in the article is at odds with the predictions of doom and gloom for our region from the public transit front:

Chicago, Illinois’ ambitious development plans, massive infrastructure investment, reasonable location costs and an energetic regional economy have kept it at the top of fDi’s major Cities of the Future shortlist.

Chicago ranked as the US City of the Future in 2005 and has developed a massive lead ahead of its nearest competitors in the past two years thanks to high levels of public and private investment and consistently strong economic indicators. As fDi went to press, Chicago was waiting to see if it would be chosen by the US Olympic Committee to bid for the 2016 summer games.

I had no idea that Chicago had such global economic heft. I thought that our location in the Rust Belt, outside of the high growth areas in the South and Southwest, and our eclipse by Los Angeles as the nation's second largest city, meant that this region had slipped a tier or two and couldn't be counted as one of the major world cities. As I recall, Saskia Sassen in her book "The Global City" classified Chicago with cities like Osaka and Detroit as "tweeners," not really global cities but still considerable urban areas of more than regional significance. She was relatively pessimistic about the prospects for these in-between cities. (Of course, she voted with her feet and now teaches at the University of Chicago!)

Consequently, I viewed the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative's rhetoric about making sure that Chicago has a "world class" transit system because it is a "world class" city as so much PR flack talk. If urban GDP is a valid measure of whether an urban region is world class or not, however, then these studies suggest that the Chicago region is world class and that the aspirations and exhortations to build a world class transit system may be on target.

You learn something every day.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Metropolis 2020 Blockbuster

Chicago Metropolis 2020 has released a six-page proposal entitled "Building a Great Transit System for the Chicago Region" that addresses the RTA authority, transit funding, and transit governance issues simply and well. It is worth a close read.

RTA Governance

The Proposal endorses Representative Hamos' so-called RTA reform bill (HB 1841) but indicates that the bill does not go far enough. Most notably, the Proposal recommends that the RTA should be empowered "to promote transit-oriented land development throughout the region as a means to enhance transit ridership and to accommodate population growth without depending solely on highway construction." These words no doubt will send a tremor of alarm throughout the suburban region, where mayors, village councils and developers continue to work together to enable auto-centric sprawl while loudly complaining that their towns don't get enough public transit service.

The Proposal has several other recommendations that go beyond the Hamos bill. These include authorizing the RTA to enter into agreements with local governments to "undertake and fund transit-related plans, programs or projects that support the RTA's goals and objectives." In addition, the RTA will be required "to allocate federal transit formula fund for capital projects based on clear criteria consistent with RTA goals, polices and performance." Another recommendation is that the RTA be required to give prior approval to any federal transit capital grant application in the RTA region.


The Proposal starts from the premise that the RTA region must "face the reality that if we are to build and maintain the type of transit system our region need, we [i.e., the RTA region] will have to raise most of the $2.4 billion needed yearly ourselves." It proposes the following:

Operating Revenue (new money)

  • RTA region: $320 million
  • State: $80 million

Capital Funding (new money)
  • RTA Region: $700 million
  • State: $700 million
In other words, the Proposal is recommending that a bit over $1 billion in new money for public transit be raised in the RTA region. (This amounts to roughly $100 per capita per year in new money). The Proposal offers a menu of new funding sources.

Proposed Funding Sources

  • An RTA imposed gas tax of up to 5 percent (up to $325 million). Policy basis for gas tax is that motorists are the beneficiaries of the public transit system and should be "directly involved" in paying for the system.
  • Increase the RTA sales tax in the City to 1.25% ($85 million) and up to 1.0% in the collar counties ($345 million).
  • Adopt distance-based, time of day, and other such pricing measures ($90 million through a 10 percent increase in fare revenue).
  • Find the holy grail of an integrated electronic fare system ($36 million).
  • Broaden the RTA sales tax to include consumer services ($200 million and presumably more if sales tax rates are increased in Chicago and collar counties).
  • Tax on non-residential off-street parking (up to $300 million).
  • Fix the "structure and financing" of the CTA's pension system (go figure).

Some quick observations:

1. It likely will be a tough sell to increase the collar county sales tax rate more than an increase in the Chicago sales tax rate.

2. How does this proposal square with the Governor's pledge not to raise taxes on the working people of Illinois? Does the RTA region seek a legislative declaration that its population is composed of layabouts, a measure that would likely attract plenty of downstate votes? Perhaps a requirement that any transit funding increase be approved through a referendum would finesse this issue. Maybe it is enough that any increase would be imposed by the RTA and not the State of Illinois itself.

3. The proposal makes no mention of how to deal with the dysfunctional labor relations situation at the CTA, which holds up resolution of the pension funding problem and prevents the CTA from subcontracting work and taking other cost-effective measures.

4. It is surprising that Proposal fails to advocate for congestion zone pricing, such as exists in London and is proposed for New York. Congestion zone pricing targets auto travel in areas most heavily served by public transit so the linkage between the "tax" and the benefits of a transit system is much stronger than a generalized gas tax. Why should the working stiff in Will County with a 40 mile commute to the northern suburbs and no transit options pay far more than the Chicago resident who chooses to drive to the Loop or the airports.

5. The proposed parking tax dovetails with yesterday's Tribune article on the growing movement against free parking. It will be a tough sell to tax a big box retailer in the suburbs whose store is served by little or no public transit at the same rate as retailers in more densely populated areas well served by public transit. Perhaps the region should consider a base parking tax that funds local transportation improvements and a congestion surcharge devoted to public transit that is based on the congestion levels in the area.

More on this and the transit governance recommendations tomorrow.

Anyone want to speculate on whether this proposal has been reviewed and approved by Representative Hamos?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Ron Huberman Draft Letter to Springfield

Here's an imaginary draft letter from Ron Huberman, the CTA's new President, to the General Assembly. The premise of the draft is that Huberman is more likely to achieve his ambitious operational goals at the CTA and obtain a larger and more secure stream of long-term operating subsidies and capital funding if the CTA first has to downsize, raise fares and fix its pension problems. Just a thought:

* * *
Dear Legislators:

The RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion effort has brought to your attention the financial challenges facing the region's public transit system. Our needs are great if we are going to build a world-class transit system that this region deserves.

I believe that public agencies should ask for more taxpayer dollars only when absolutely necessary and only when they are as efficient and cost-conscious as they can be. In my short tenure at the CTA, I've become convinced that the CTA is not at that point. As the Auditor General pointed out, the CTA has increased service levels well beyond its available resources. Costly work rules remain in place. The CTA has not prudently funded or managed its pensions. All those involved with the CTA--labor and management alike--share in the blame.

Consequently, I am asking you to put off for one more year any fundamental changes in the level of operating funding for the CTA. Please give the CTA sufficient additional resources to cushion the shocks from the fare increases and deep service reductions that will soon be necessary. I welcome dialogue on what that level of support might be.

I'm pleased to announce in this regard that the Mayor of the City of Chicago has pledged to ask the City Council for a $25 million one-time grant to the CTA to help the CTA make its transition to a new and better way of doing business. We will put all this money to use maintaining essential services and holding down fare increases.

With respect to the other service boards, I urge you to provide adequate funding for paratransit, which serves our region's most vulnerable citizens. I also urge you to provide sufficient capital dollars so the CTA and the other service boards can at least maintain the existing public transit system. If the other service boards have demonstrated to the General Assembly that they are as efficient and cost-conscious as they can be, please consider their requests for major increases in their operating funding. In no way should this letter be construed as lack of support for the Moving Beyond Congestion effort. The CTA simply does not want its challenges to be a distraction that obscures the legitimate needs of Metra and Pace.

Over the next year I will do my best to address the pension, service level and many other issues that you and the Governor have signaled need to be addressed at the CTA before the State will feel it an appropriate use of public money to increase its financial support for the CTA. Only then will the CTA ask you for the substantial additional resources that are certainly necessary if the CTA is to provide the quality of service that this region deserves.

Very truly yours,

Ron Huberman

Slipping Down the Priority List

Today's Crain's has an article by Brandon Glenn entitled "More State Transit Money Would Take 'Crisis,' 2 Experts Say." The two experts are David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University, and Joseph DiJohn, executive director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center.

The thrust of the article is that it will take higher fares or drastically reduced service (or both) before the State of Illinois will be prompted to increase State financial support for public transit. Mr. DiJohn is quoted as saying that public transit funding "is probably No. 5 or 6 of the list of priorities" for the Governor and the General Assembly.

I believe that weeks ago a spokesperson for the Governor stated publicly that public transit was next on the Governor's priority list after his health care and educating initiatives, and the revenue stream necessary to fund them, had been put in place. It sounds like Mr. DiJohn puts transit funding somewhat farther down the list.

The article also reports that Representative Hamos' Mass Transit Committee has been running the numbers on various funding possibilities. It sure would be nice to see those scenarios. She said that "nothing is likely to happen regarding transit funding, or any other issue, until Gov. Blagojevich’s gross-receipts tax proposal is accepted or rejected."

It sure can't help that Transportation for Illinois Coalition, a creation of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the charge against the Governor's gross receipts tax proposal, has a picture on its homepage of Jim Reilly, the RTA's Chairman sitting behind the dais at a TFIC Springfield rally. Why would anyone in the Governor's office want to fund an organization (the RTA) that has allied itself with the group that is leading the charge against the Governor's effort to raise more State revenue?

The article also suggests that the RTA will not be releasing the details of the doomsday plans from the service boards until the June RTA board meeting. The General Assembly, however, is scheduled to adjourn before then. Either the RTA is betting on an extended legislative session (reasonably good odds) or it has decided not to duplicate the CTA's doomsday scenarios from the past two legislative sessions that apparently alienated many legislators.

Of course, those doomsday scenarios resulted in more than $100 million of additional operating money for transit over the past two years. We will see how the RTA's more statemanlike approach will fare.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

RTA Reform Workgroup Developments

The RTA Reform Workgroup put together by Representative Julie Hamos has another meeting scheduled. The meetings appear to be open to all interested parties:

The RTA Reform Workgroup meeting has been re-scheduled for the following Wednesday, May 16th, from 8-10 am, in Room 413 of the Stratton Office Building. By the end of next week you should receive, via email, a draft bill based on the issues we discussed at the last meeting. This draft legislation will lead our discussion for the May 16th Workgroup meeting. Please RSVP to

Representative Hamos has not published minutes of the first two RTA Reform Workgroup meeting on her website. However, the following is an account of the first meeting, courtesy of the folks at the Transit Future initiative. It would be great if we could get an account of the May 2 meeting, which dealt with RTA funding and governance:

Recap of House Mass Transit Workgroup on RTA Reform Meeting 4/25

Members of the transit community met Wednesday morning in Springfield to discuss changes to the 1983 RTA Act. The session focused on the RTA’s role in securing federal funds for existing and future New Starts Project and setting performance measures for each of the service boards. State Representatives Bassi, Colvin, Mathias, Fortner, Ryg, Arroyo, and Hamos were joined by representative from RTA, CTA and Pace, along with transit advocates from the entire six-county region. Overall, those present were in agreement on increasing RTA’s role in evaluating and prioritizing New Start Projects among Metra, Pace and CTA. Increasing RTA’s role in the expansion and enhancement of transit in Northeastern Illinois would allow for improved regional planning and more effective allocation of state and federal funds.

The discussion of House Bills 520 and 1841 centered on the RTA’s ability to set performance measures for all three service boards. While there was general agreement on the need for performance measures, there was no consensus on whether they would be set by statute or by a stronger RTA. Regardless of the means by which performance measures are set, there must be a means by which all three service boards’ efficiency and effectiveness are evaluated and compared.

With recent progress among the service boards towards creating universal fare media, those present discussed RTA’s ability to set a universal fare structure across all three service boards to promote greater intersystem transfers. Once again, while there was consensus around the concept whether it would be accomplished by a stronger RTA or law was unclear. The experiences of other mass transit agencies have shown that ridership increases when reduced transfers between transit systems are implemented. In order for this to take place, RTA must have the authority to mediate between service boards.

Transit Future Takes Off

The Transit Future initiative of the Center for Neighborhood Technology is starting to make it presence felt on the transit front. Here's information from the TF website on three upcoming Transit Future events. I'm sure anyone interested in transit issues would be welcome:

Rally in Support of Transit
Monday, May 7, 10 a.m.
State of Illinois Building (Thompson Center) Room 2025 (2nd Floor), 100 W. Randolph (Randolph and Clark)

The Transit Future Campaign is co-sponsoring a rally in support of mass transit with Concerned Commuters of Northeast Illinois. Together we will send a message to Gov. Rod Blagojevich that transit funding and reform need to be priorities now! The more people in attendance, the stronger our message will be, so show your support of transit by attending this event. Come to the rally and make your voice heard!

RSVP to David LeBreton at or (773) 269-4043.

Lobby Day in Springfield
Thursday, May 10

The Transit Future staff members are heading down to Springfield on Thursday, May 10 to talk to our state representatives face-to-face about the importance of funding for mass transit in Northeastern Illinois. If you want to let your legislator know why you believe mass transit is critical for our region, contact Emily Metz for more information at or (773) 269-4070. We want as many coalition-members as possible with us on the Amtrak going down, so come and impact the General Assembly’s decisions about the funding and reform of mass transit!

Meeting with State Representative Julie Hamos
Saturday, May 12, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W. North Ave.

The Transit Future Campaign is coordinating an event for our members to hear about the political lay of the land down in Springfield from the Head of the Mass Transit Committee, Rep. Julie Hamos. Come hear about the transit funding crisis that is taking place right now, and what we can all do to get involved and help influence the General Assembly to address the issue. Do not miss this opportunity to talk directly with one of the most widely respected advocates for transit in the Illinois Legislature!

RSVP to David LeBreton at or (773) 269-4043.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jim Reilly's Frown Of Olympic Proportions

I happened to spot Jim Reilly, the RTA's Chairman, walking by himself outside the capital building in Springfield yesterday. He may have just emerged from the ad hoc RTA Reform Working Group that had been convened that morning by Representative Julie Hamos. (It is unfortunate that she is not posting minutes of the Working Group on her otherwise detailed transit-oriented webpage). Or maybe he was just unsuccessful in his quest for a horseshoe sandwich. But whatever the case, he was sporting a big, big frown

It seems to me that Mr. Reilly can take some cheer in today's Chicago Tribune editorial entitled "Breaking the Doomsday Cycle." The editorial urges the General Assembly to give the CTA more power to structure its pension system so that its pension costs can be contained and to strengthen the RTA by adopting Representative Hamos' RTA reform bill. Once these preconditions are met, the Tribune opines, "lawmakers will have no excuse to shortchange the CTA" and, by extension, Metra and Pace.

A Sun-Times editorial entitled "Underfunded Transit Near End of the Line" also should make Mr. Reilly feel a bit better. The editorial warns legislators not to forget about the needs of the paratransit riders. Paratransit is very expensive on a per ride basis (roughly $25 a ride) and ridership is increasing so annual costs for paratransit will soon hit $100 million with no signs of stopping there. The Sun-Times editorial is a helpful reminder that many paratransit riders have more limited transportation options than the rest of us:

Unlike many regular mass transit riders, paratransit customers don't have another option. Unless Springfield can work out a solution to the transit funding crisis in the next month or so, all bus and train riders will suffer, but paratransit users will suffer most of all.

And yet more good news on the paper front. The head of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the board chairs from seven Northeastern Illinois counties that make up the RTA region sent a letter to the Governor and the four General Assembly leaders urging them to make investment in transportation a priority issue.

The RTA Board also met today. It was an opportunity for strong hints that not just doomsday scenarios but indeed doomsday itself may be around the corner for the region's public transit system. The RTA press release quoted Executive Director Steve Schlickman warning that the "moment of crisis is upon us" and predicting some combination of fare hikes, service cuts and the like if the General Assembly does not increase State support for public transit.

Schlickman seems to have bobbled a softball question lobbed in his direction by new RTA director Judy Baar Topinka. Crain's reports the following exchange:

Topinka expressed concern that the transit funding uncertainty could jeopardize Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

“Does it sink us?” she pointedly asked Mr. Schlickman.

“I can’t speak directly to that,” he responded.

Isn't the prospect of an Olympic bid the only development of note since the RTA issued its Moving Beyond Congestion report in February and it sank like a stone in the Governor's Office and the General Assembly? Shouldn't our transit leaders be saying something like the following: "Enhancing and expanding the region's public transit system as we have proposed will cement Chicago's standing as a world-class city and we think increase the prospects that Chicago will be selected to host the 2016 Summer Olympics." Ms. Topinka was giving her executive director a great opportunity to hitch increased financial support for public transit to the popular quest for the Olympics and it appears he flubbed the chance.

Why didn't Schlickman hit that softball question out of the proverbial ballpark? Could it be that the RTA is so pessimistic about the prospects for its proposed transit funding package that it didn't want to hurt the region's chances for landing the Olympics by suggesting that improved transit would help Chicago's prospects and then see its package be rejected and the region's Olympic chances be diminished? Let's hope not.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"We Will Be Doing A Lot Of Slashing"

Ron Huberman, the new CTA President, promises that he will be doing "a lot of slashing" at the CTA. His focus will be on the managerial levels. Two questions:

1. Where do you "slash" at the CTA and how much do you save?

2. The Auditor General concluded that a major contributing factor to the CTA's financial woes was increasing service levels (and costs) over the past five years much faster than revenues were increasing. Does Huberman have the mandate to "right size" the CTA's service level to its revenue base by reducing service levels to where they were five years ago or is his talk of "slashing" just a way to extract more operating dollars from the General Assembly (or both)?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Suburbs: What Do They Want?

Congressman Mark Kirk's press release account of the first meeting of the Suburban Transportation Commission provides some insight on what suburban interests want from the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion process.

I have just about as much sympathy with the complaints of the suburbanites about RTA funding issues and public transit service levels in the suburbs as I would if Chicago political leaders started complaining about the low levels of agricultural subsidies and farms in the City of Chicago.

The suburbs, by choice and with the help of ample subsidies from the state and federal governments, have created a built environment and transportation infrastructure that is largely hostile to cost-effective/high-ridership public transportation, just as the City of Chicago has developed in a way that is quite unamenable to agriculture. The notion that the suburbs are being "shortchanged" with public transit has as much credibility as Chicago complaining that it is being "shortchanged" when it comes to agricultural subsidies and farms.

Now, Chicago should expect to get its fair share of agricultural funding if it chooses to replace office towers with cornfields. Likewise, the suburbs should get more support for public transit if they take aggressive steps to build up the population density necessary to make public transportation viable outside of the current Metra corridors and a relatively few Pace bus routes. As discussed below, it appears that the suburbs are unwilling to embrace such transit-oriented development.

It is also important to remember that there are really two "suburbs" for present purposes, suburban Cook County and the collar counties. As the Auditor General Report found (pgs. 316-28 of 450), suburban Cook County pays far more into the public transit system than it receives back in service. The collar counties, the primary constituency to whom the Suburban Transportation Commission is oriented, pay less into the system than they receive in service.

One outcome of the first meeting of the Commission was the development of “Suburban Transportation Principles” with the "full support' of the Commission and 10 mayors from the 10th Congressional District. The principles are as follows (with commentary):
  • Federal, state and local officials must work on a bipartisan basis to upgrade road, rail, aviation and transit systems in the Chicago suburbs.
Response: Hard to argue with this.
  • Illinois Congressional leaders should join together to win the maximum return of federal transportation funding from Washington.
Response: Ditto.
  • Improving the suburb's transportation infrastructure is essential to economic growth, environmental protection and enhanced quality of life for suburban families.
Response: Agreed, but only so long as the improvement of suburban transportation infrastructure is not at the expense of improvements to the transportation infrastructure in other areas of the region/state that would yield greater benefits.
  • The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) consensus system, which gives suburbs and the city veto power over major decisions, resulted in 30 years of no service interruptions, high bond ratings and financial stability for suburban commuters.
Response: Might add to that list: (1) public transit ridership levels far lower than levels 30 years ago; (2) no coherent policy for allocating capital among the transit modes and service boards; (3) a much less dense metropolitan region, which is less hospitable to public transit; (4) the RTA's failure to exercise effective financial oversight over the service boards, which has allowed all three service boards to have unbalanced budgets and resulted in the current funding "crisis;" and (5) the fetishization of "high bond ratings" at a time when the CTA rail system and other parts of the public transit system are starved for capital.
  • Reforms, if made to the RTA, should be made providing the citizens of the region with one-person, one-vote equality. Over half of all Illinois citizens now live in the suburbs.
Response: Why should population be the determinant of RTA voting power rather than ridership and/or financial effort by region? My proposal (and here) to give all three areas in the RTA region--Chicago, suburban Cook County, collar counties--an equal voice on the RTA Board while allocating voting power based on RTA sales tax and fares paid in each area has not generated much interest. Nonetheless, I think this approach could make all areas equally happy (or unhappy) and hence has merit.
  • Current RTA subsidies to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra and Pace are allocated to appropriate formulas. Any effort to reform these formulas should be directed to emphasize suburb-to-suburb commuting, Chicago use of suburban transportation services and projects in communities where traffic congestion is a serious issue.
Response: Why is the statutory formula for delivery operating funds "appropriate" when it leaves only one service board (the CTA) heavily dependent on RTA discretionary operating funds? Why should only one service board bear the risk that the RTA will shift a major portion of their operating funds to other uses? Why are the proposed areas for emphasis--e.g., suburb-to-suburb commuting--worthy of jiggering with the formula but addressing the CTA's operating funding vulnerability or the preserving the existing transit infrastructure not worthy enough?
  • Regional transportation decisions should not diminish the authority of elected mayors and village councils over land use and zoning.
Response: This principle is the crux of the problem. Too many suburbs want the Metra trains and Pace buses running frequently through their communities but they don't want to make the hard decisions necessary to support higher-density development to support that service. (Example here.) Chicago shouldn't get agricultural subsidies and farm extension services if it doesn't have farms. Suburbs shouldn't get high levels of transit service if they lack the density necessary to support such service.
  • The organization of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has been well received. Unwarranted changes to the structure of CMAP would undo the regional consensus that brought the Agency into existence.
Response: Something is up with CMAP. Anyone know (or would care to speculate)?
  • Any increase in taxes, fees or other charges should be made only after they are individually approved by the voters of the region on a one-person, one-vote basis.
Response: As noted here, I like the idea of putting increased funding for transit to a vote. In other areas of the country transit funding referenda have done surprisingly well and have helped build a regional consensus in suppport of public transit.

Reforms to the RTA and suburban transportation system should reflect open public debate and thoughtful consideration of experts and the press.

Response: How are we doing?