Thursday, June 14, 2007

Just When It Is Getting Interesting

I'm out of town until near the end of June so posting will be sporadic until then. And just when things get interesting:

-- The Governor is talking to the CTA about a $100 million bailout, raising suburban fears of the CTA-only bailout that would leave Metra and Pace to the proverbial wolves.

-- The more significant story is Alderman Burke's proposal to convene a hearing on congestion pricing for Chicago. (Here, here and here.)

The Mayor comments were not promising:

Mayor Richard Daley said he has an open mind on the congestion-fee concept. But he also has reservations.

With their narrow streets and absence of alleys, London and New York are "completely different" from Chicago, he said.

"Are you going to put [the fee] on all the aldermen who drive every day?" Daley asked. "What about all the trucks coming downtown? What do you do with them?"

"Let's not rush to that and scare everybody off," the mayor declared. "We are trying to keep businesses here and ... move businesses into the city."

The Mayor's concerns about whether congestion pricing is physically feasible in Chicago are misplaced.

First, the readers used to collect vehicle information via an onboard transponder or photograph of the license plate are not prohibitively expensive and can be deployed in large numbers.

Second, there are some natural barriers that would assist in CBD tolling. For example, the bridges over the Chicago River could be toll points that would capture all of the traffic from the north and west to the Loop.

Third, electronic tolling is flexible enough that you don't have to think of tolling as a sort of gate to a medieval fortress. Rather, tolling points could be placed throughout the CBD in sufficient number that it would be almost inevitable that a driver would go through at least one toll point. At the same time, the system would be programmed so that if you drove through more than one collection point toll collection point in a day you would only be charged once. Sure, a few people might zig-zag around through alleys and back streets to avoid toll points, but most people would not give up the chance to travel on main streets.

Nor were the comments of two local transportation experts very encouraging:

Siim Soot:

“I think it’s a risky proposition,” said Siim Sööt, former director of the Urban Transportation Center at University of Illinois-Chicago. “I think one has to proceed very cautiously with a proposal such as this. We want as many people to come down as possible to shop and work. I think this would hurt the city of Chicago.”

David Schultz:

Alderman Burke pointed to similar fees levied in London, Stockholm and Amsterdam as successful models for such a charge, but overseas drivers pay far more in gas than U.S. counterparts, said David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University.

“I’m glad Alderman Burke is looking at it, but we have to be careful,” Mr. Schulz said. “To do it for a particular region is going to run the risk of chasing people away.”

A common theme in all these comments is that congestion pricing would chase people away from the Chicago CBD. Yet, congestion pricing has the potential to make the CBD more attractive. Many individuals and businesses will trade money for a faster, smoother trip in the CBD. It certainly would be worth it to Federal Express, for example, to pay $10 per truck per day if deliveries in the CBD could go 10% faster because of reduced congestion. How many potential visitors to Chicago who now stay away because of "crazy traffic" might take a chance on a visit if they knew that $10 (for example) would mean a much smoother ride.

Consider also the beneficial impact of congestion pricing for folks using public transit assuming, of course, that the congestion pricing net revenue would be used to support public transit. Aren't there the elements of a win-win here: A better environment for drivers of all kind and a better transit system? Far from driving people away, a well-designed congestion pricing program could make Chicago a more attractive place for businesses, commuters and visitors.

-- Finally, here is the backstory on the Governor's effort to get some appointments on the CMAP board. It doesn't seem so crazy in principle that the governor would have some direct representation on the board of this region's MPO, which covers two-thirds of the population and likely more of the GDP of the state. Nevertheless, this "power play" has the suburbanites in another tizzy. Perhaps they don't remember the many years when suburban interests controlled the Governor's mansion. Giving the Governor CMAP appointment power might be a gift that keeps on giving for many years for suburban interests, just not over the next few years.


Anonymous said...

Julie Hamos published a guest column today in the Daily Herald detailing a number of "facts" about transit in our region.

Here is another set of facts regarding the CTA drawn from a booklet entitled Facts About Chicago Transit Authority, dated August 16, 1954.

1. The Transit Authority Plan is based on the fundamental premise that attractive and convenient service shall be provided at cost, including the cost of modernizing equipment and facilities. From the conventional form of public ownership, the Authority Plan of operations differs in this highly important respect - the users of the service are expected to pay all of the operating costs, and costs of financing new equipment and improvements.

2. In its administrative set-up, the Authority is similar to a privately owned company, inasmuch as it must rely upon its earnings to succeed; it has no power to levy taxes. The responsibility for good operations is that of the General Manager, subject to general control of the Board. Thus the Authority Plan retains the major incentives of a privately owned business. As in a private company, the Authority management must strive at all times for efficient, economic operation and continuing improvement in service. Good performance by CTA management and al its employees is just as essential to survival as it is in any private business.

3. So that it may be self-supporting, the Chicago Transit Authority is vested with the right to establish rates of fare, and to regulate service. In fact it is mandatory upon the CHicago Transit Board to adjust rates up or down, so that CTA income in the aggregate shall be sufficient to pay operating and maintenance costs and all other charges, including interest and principal charges on the use of borrowed money. This provision of law in effect requires the Chicago Transit Authority to be service-at-cost operation.

The CTA has strayed very very far from these founding principles - to the point where it now relies on public tax dollars for over half of its operating costs and all of its capital investment. These principles may be dated by they are not outdated.

Bartender - a round of CTA facts for everyone.

Anonymous said...

A couple of related points.
I looked at SB0572 Amendment 1 for another purpose, and found that it isn't the same as it was the last time. The substance of the amended Section 2.12a has become Section 2.12b, and the old 2.12a is repealed. While this may just be housecleaning, one substantive change is that it would take the votes of 7 Board members to force the Executive Director to intervene, and only 7 Board votes, not 9, to overturn the Executive Director's arbitration decision. This appears to gut the effectiveness of the intervention provision.

2. The previous poster is correct about what the CTA was supposed to be. (Someone was passing the story, of which I don't know one way or the other, that the CTA was supposed to be an interim turnaround artist, and sell the reorganized company to private interests, which of course never happened). Also, while the streetcar companies were bankrupt in that they weren't current on their bonds, they did have sufficient income to pay salaries, fund pensions and a replacement reserve, and pay property taxes (none of which CTA can do now). As far as the economics go, they went into the toilet, not only for the CTA, but also for the private bus and commuter companies about 1970. However, he is right that the attitude that the CTA should be run like a business should have persisted but was also lost about the same time, and now it is being run like it is a welfare recipient, with its overriding purpose being to protect the jobs and pensions of its employees, and secondarily run a transit agency, paying only lip service to the goals of "efficient, economic operation and continuing improvement in service." The responsibility for good operations may be with the General Manager (now President), but the Board only perfunctorily passes on a political appointment made by the Mayor and does not insist on management employees with proven good experience in the transit industry.

Anonymous said...

Messrs. Soot and Schulz--never mind the mayor--are totally soaking in the timidity that underscored the local Urban Partership effort. Small wonder the feds bounced it so quickly.

I'm not sure why they're all that worried about sending businesses scurrying to the burbs. You'd think they might have noticed that here's already a toll to drive to the suburbs, and it doesn't seem to hurt their business any. (The toll also doesn't seem to reduce rush hour traffic any, but that's because the toll is way, way underpriced, particularly so at peak hours. Of course, even the underpriced toll raises hundreds of millions of clams annually.)

Here's the worst that can happen: You try a toll for a bit. If it has no effect at all, then you raise it. If it drops traffic down to a point where the streets are whisper-quiet and every business larger than Mr. Beef races to the 'burbs, then you lower it. And if it's univerally despised, then you get rid of it, and we're right back to the congestion that we know and love.

Of course, if tolls work as advertised, and downtown life goes on more or less as before, but with a lot less traffic, then we just stick with it and wonder what took us so long.

Anonymous said...

I thought I was going nuts in thinking that SB 572 wasn't the same as the proposal previously drafted for modifying Section 2.12a of the RTA Act. I thank Moderator for saving the links. The original (draft) first amendment to HB 1841 is here and the first amendment, as reflected in SB 572, is here. Something was lost in translation, or more likely, the politicos bargained the provision into meaninglessness when HB 1841 became SB 572.

Anonymous said...

"And if it's univerally despised, then you get rid of it, and we're right back to the congestion that we know and love."

Makes sense, but you know that won't happen. A few states, like Kentucky, kept their promises to make toll roads freeways when the bonds were paid, but most, including Illinois, did not, and now are investing money in new toll collection equipment. There may be an argument for that, but you know that once toll collection equipment is installed in accordance with one of these plans, the politicians will say that they must retain the tolls to pay the bonds used to finance it (or more likely, as in the case of red light cameras in some other cities, they will give a private company an interest in the enforcement mechanism and then say that the matter is out of the city's hands). Also, as in the case of the New York State Thruway, this will create a new army of employees charged with collecting the money, who then will assert their vested interest in keeping the system.

Anonymous said...

I'd be for a congestion tax, if someone builds more park 'n ride faciiities at various points on the Metra/Cta Rail lines.

Anonymous said...

1)A "congestion pricing" scheme is variable, i.e. based on supply.
2)What has been proposed is not congestion pricing.
3)In all configurations it is a capitulation to the automobile in that it implies that nothing more can be done and no other mode can be competitive.
4)To the contrary it confirms that transit can only compete if the auto is penalized/crippled.
5)If roads and parking supplies were restricted auto numbers would be naturally controlled.
6)Congestion pricing and cordon/zone tolling are absolute proof of system failure.

Anonymous said...

Dogbert just provided his answer to congestion.

Anonymous said...

So what's the boundary? If we make it the river, all the congestion moves to River North, West Loop, and South Loop, and development stalls while people who own land keep it vacant for surface parking for those who wish to avoid the charge and walk.

Anonymous said...

Tolling at the bridges doesn't make any sense whatsoever. What about the people that live on the other side of the bridges like in the West Loop, do they have to get charged every time they cross a bridge which could be often to travel from another place to home.

Anonymous said...

Well if you lived in the West Loop, I can't think of a place you'd be that you would need to drive to that would require you to drive through the Loop.