Thursday, June 7, 2007

Big Loss For Our Local Transportation Team

This region's transportation team took a big hit today.

The federal Department of Transportation is putting $1.1 billion into an Urban Partnership Program that is the centerpiece of the federal effort to fight highway congestion. The program is looking for large, innovative congestion-relief programs that can be implemented in three years. Under the program DOT:

plans to partner with certain metropolitan areas or ‘‘Urban Partners’’ in order to demonstrate strategies with proven effectiveness in reducing traffic congestion. Under a UPA, the Department and its Urban Partners would agree to pursue four strategies with a combined track record of effectiveness in reducing traffic congestion, collectively referred to as the ‘‘Four Ts:’’

• Tolling: Implementing a broad congestion pricing or variable toll demonstration;
• Transit: Creating or expanding express bus services or bus rapid transit (BRT), which will benefit from the free flow traffic conditions generated by congestion pricing or variable tolling;
• Telecommuting: Securing agreements from major area employers to establish or expand telecommuting and flex scheduling programs; and
• Technology & operations: Utilizing cutting edge technological and operational approaches to improve system performance.

To the maximum extent possible, USDOT will support its Urban Partners with financial resources (including some combination of grants, loans, and borrowing authority), regulatory flexibility, and dedicated expertise and personnel.

The Chicago area with its large population, high level of congestion and and huge and heterogeneous transportation network was a natural candidate to become one of the urban partners. This would allow the region to tap into a couple hundred million dollars or so of new federal transportation dollars.

It appears that DOT provided a special briefing on the program tailored to the region's transportation public officials. An alphabet soup of local entities-- CMAP, RTA, CTA, ISHTA, IDOT, City of Chicago, COEMC, and Pace--then collaborated on an application. IDOT took the lead and submitted this region's application in mid-April.

By all accounts, this region's application (which is not yet publicly posted but available by FOIA from IDOT) was mishmash of proposals. Despite DOT's direction that the Urban Partnership projects should be implemented in three years, this region's application was filled with concepts and studies and lots of "down-the-roadisms."

Even though tolling was number one on DOT's list, the congestion pricing portion of the application reportedly was particularly weak. A grand total of one paragraph was developed to London-style cordon pricing in Chicago, and that to indicate that the region would think about the concept. No concrete plans were offered to extend highway tolling from the existing tollways to another highway. No concrete plans were offered to implement congestion pricing on the roads that already are tolled.

This was clearly the wrong approach, especially since Mary Peters, the Secretary of Transportation, is the queen of congestion pricing.

Not surprisingly, when the DOT announced today the nine semi-finalists for the program, Chicago was not among then. DOT will announce the finalists in August. Here are links to stories describing several of the urban partnership proposals that DOT chose instead of the Chicago proposal. The contrast between the gauzy nature of this region's application and the bold, concrete plans of some of the successful candidates is revealing:

New York: Mary Peters was in New York City with Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Spitzer to help push for New York City's congestion pricing program in Manhattan, which will help alleviate traffic congestion and generate several hundred million dollars each year that can be used for transit. We've described this plan in a previous post. New York might get up to $500 million.

Seattle: The Seattle area is rolling out a road pricing system using an innovative onboard tracking device. People will be charged by the miles they drive regardless of whether the highway is a tollway or not. Time of day pricing s also possible using this technology. Seattle is also implementing high-occupancy toll lanes.

Denver: Denver is tolling new lanes on U.S. 36 between Denver and Colorado and no doubt would use some of the Urban Partnership money to support its ambitious 140-mile expansion of its light rail and bus rapid transit system.

Lacking a credible congestion pricing component, this region's application had little chance of making even the first cut. (The fact that we're in a blue state might also have something to do with the lack of success.) That is too bad. Congestion pricing on the express lanes of the Kennedy and Dan Ryan, for example, could generate revenue to help keep the Blue and Red lines in a state of good repair. Much of the money would be paid by folks passing through the city. And if they don't travel through the city they would pay tolls on the tollways. Either way, the region's transportation system would have a stronger funding base and the ability to use congestion pricing to manage traffic flows.

There is strong federal support for congestion pricing. Other cities in the United States, most notably New York, seem to be embracing congestion pricing, following the lead of European and Asian cities. It certainly makes common sense that if you give away something valuable--roadway space--for free you inevitably are going to have over-consumption--in this case traffic congestion of the wasteful stop-and-start kind.

The loss of potentially several hundred million federal dollars and other benefits because of the failed Urban Partnership application should serve as a wake-up call to the region's transportation team. Unfortunately, there aren't any natural institutional candidates for bold leadership on this issue. IDOT has a sad history of leaving federal money from innovative programs (e.g., TIFFIA, existing congestion relief programs) on the table and by reputation is at low ebb in terms of morale, expertise and innovation--to say nothing of money. The City is resistant to congestion pricing, overlooking the fact that many non-residents would be paying these tolls as they pass through the city and that the toll revenue could finance highway and transit projects and operations. ISTHA lacks the authority to extend its I-PASS system to highways off its system and seems too timid to implement true congestion pricing or to reach out and be an effective partner with other agencies. Neither the Governor nor the legislative leaders seem particularly interested in transportation issues.

The region's transportation team no doubt is discouraged as a result its big loss today. I mean, if Chicago can't place itself at the front of the pack when it comes to transportation issues, given the region's long history as a transportation hub, then that reflects extremely poorly on our transportation professionals and our politicians.

Let's hope we all learn from today's sad lesson.


Anonymous said...

"Let's hope we all learn from today's sad lesson."

You're dreaming. s/b

"Let's hope THEY ALL LEARN from today's sad lesson."

Anonymous said...

The local response sort of sounds like the Moving Beyond Congestion "strategic plan," which appears now to be in the dumpster.

Anonymous said...

The brilliant Governor refused to allow any currently non-tolled highway to be tolled for purposes of congestion pricing, even if it meant reducing congestion and providing massive amounts of money for transit. That doomed Illinois' application.

Moderator said...

Anonymous #2--

How do you know it was "the brillant Governor" who gutted the congestion pricing component of this region's Urban Partnership application? Could the City of Chicago also have dug in its heels? After all, the City has opposed HOV lanes on I-55 and thus presumably opposed HOT lanes elsewhere.

If you can share the basis of your information without necessarily revealing your identity please do so.

pc said...

Yeah, I wrote a bit about some of the semi-finalist proposals. Besides NYC and SF (to a much lesser extent), they're not that revolutionary -- but they do add tolls to roads that are currently free.

What especially pains me about this loss is that the feds are offering free grants to tap into and support a potentially huge new revenue source. This would, unlike any other federally funded transportation improvement in the area, have been an investment that would pay huge, nearly immediate, and continuous dividends -- if it happened.

Little Blue PD said...

We all have to wonder what Bloomberg is really thinking of with this congestion pricing tax scheme. Maybe he mostly just wants a new tax. Just wrap it up in ‘concern for the environment’, and then people can just demonize those who oppose it.

If he cares so much about traffic jams, congestion and air pollution, why does he let Park Avenue be blocked off? Why doesn’t he do anything about that?

Pershing Square Restaurant blocks Park Avenue going South at 42nd St. for about 12 hours a day/5 months of the year! This Causes Massive Congestion & Air Pollution!

But apparently it does not bother NYC’s Nanny-in-Chief Mike “Congestion Pricing Tax” Bloomberg? Check out the map!

Check it out!


Little Blue PD

jackonthebus said...

11 months later, and it turns out Chicago got half of NYC's money. Too bad no one is left here to enjoy the lack of clairvoyance.

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