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?


jackonthebus said...

Two areas on which I disagree:
1. If the CTA is the only one dependent on discretionary funding, why is Pace now underwriting the "Moving Beyond Congestion" advertising program? You might have a point that funding Pace may not be cost effective on a per passenger basis, but no argument can be made that the current funding level is adequate for Pace to maintain or expand service (even when its restructuring studies show a demand for it) or engage in an extensive capital program. What is your point--cut off transit funding to Metra and Pace until the suburbs implement high density zoning?
2. The CTA proved today that it is the Daley Transit Authority. Why should suburban Cook County subsidize that, when the city is willing to put very little "skin into the [transit] game?" You haven't responded to my post on the need for governance reform at the CTA.

Furthermore, isn't there a need to apply transit to take care of the reverse commute problem? Currently, the reverse commute traffic time on the Edens is double the traditional commute. However, the only way transit serves that area is because the Transit Management Association of Lake Cook subsidizes feeder service.

While you say:
"My proposal 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."
are you expecting the state legislators to read it and react to it here? Or have you written your state senator and representative and copied Julie Hamos? I have, and did receive a response.

Finally, I live both in Kirk's district and in Cook County, so your characterization of "the primary constituency" is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

This post is a real doozy. Let's start with a fundamental question--maybe a potential "criteria"-- to answer your ring around the philosophy assertions. Please fill in the blanks in the table below by Service Board Share of their Budget:
Policy Driven Market Driven
============= =============
Fare :
Level :
Capital :
Expenses :
Operating :
Expenses :
Service :
Levels :
Then let's discuss how the bill (subsidies) should get split up and who should pay for the extras and the mixed drinks.

jackonthebus said...

It might have been more precise if I had said in the first comment:
1. If the CTA is the only service board inadequately funded under the formula ....

Anonymous said...

The moderator makes a point that the suburbs do not have enough population density for transit to succeed there. THis is a specious argument made by the wine and cheese set at the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the transit bosses themselves to cover up the fact that they cannot or will not build a suburban transit network.. Metra just announced record ridership in 2006. Most of those riders originate in the suburbs - clear evidence that transit is working in the suburbs at least for travel to downtown Chicago. And no wonder, with the sheer level of service provided.

Our regional commuter rail system serves many origins and one destination - the Chicago CBD. The CTA system serves many origins and many destinations in Chicago. A comparable network/level of service does not exist for intersuburban travel. The Oak Brook/Yorktown area, a major regional employment center in its own right has a small fraction of the service available to downtown Chicago. Similar to CHicago, the suburbs need a transit network that serves many origins and many destination. This could be a grid, hub and spoke, multiple hub and spoke or point-to-point system.

Unfortunately the suburban transit operators, Pace and Metra have not seen fit to build a suburban transit network. Pace is better at devising acronyms for service than actual service. Metra's vision for intersuburban transit - the STAR Line while grandiose is wrong but moving ahead nonetheless.

The STAR Line is not proximate to the major suburban employment centers wtih the exception of Schaumburg, nor does it connect significant concentrations of origins with the employment centers. It is a point-to-point service along a railroad that is fixed and not flexible at all. It does nothing to diversify our region's investment in transportation as would managed lanes on expressways/tollways that could be used by trucks, cars and transit. Is is hugely expensive ($2 billion) and will take many years to build if indeed it is ever built. Unfortunately Metra has done a pretty good job of selling this bill of goods to the suburbs, and the project planning process is designed to obfuscate more than reveal facts about this major investment.

DuPage County has adopted the DuPage Area Transit Plan as the official transti plan for Dupage.The plan prescibes a network of connector routes and a high speed corridor envisoned as Bus Rapid Transit. Yet Metra and Pace have yet to show much interest.

Getting back to what the suburbs want. Given em a respectable level of service to a few major activity centers. A $2 billion choo-choo train is no place to begin.