Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Transparency And The Final Deal

Since 2004, Representative Julie Hamos has been good about keeping the public informed about the status of her transit reform effort. Her website has a transit page that contains copies of presentations and testimony submitted by various parties during various hearings before the House Mass Transit Committee, cites to her transit-related legislative initiatives (e.g., S.B. 572), and links to relevant news articles. Earlier this year she convened transit working group meetings open to all interested parties.

Things have changed. Representative Hamos' transit web page hasn't been updated for weeks. Her emails to transit aficionados and other interested parties about upcoming working group meetings have ceased.

We know that there is a lot going on. WBBM reported that Representative Hamos has continued to convene working group meetings. She has put together a 200 page plus proposed bill that covers much more than what is covered by amendments No. 1 and No.2 to SB 572. We know from these articles (here, here and here) and others that these issues include a 10 year waiver of the 50% recovery ratio requirement for the RTA, more money for downstate transit agencies, imposing a "similar" recovery ratio requirement on downstate transit agencies (good luck!), and a bond program to help address the CTA's pension problem.

A month ago, Representative Hamos circulated for general comment a highly controversial legislative proposal to change the governance of the RTA and Metra. This time, however, she has refrained from circulating the current proposal(s) for public review and comment.

It is common practice for legislators to clamp down on the flow of information during the final stages of putting together a piece of highly contentious legislation. Nevertheless, it is disappointing the Representative Hamos, who seemed to be making a concerted effort to keep all interested informed, has restricted the flow of information during the hopefully final few weeks of this legislative session.

If someone has access to materials that may be of interest to readers of this blog, please send them to me at moderator1stc@yahoo.com. Your anonymity will be respected and protected. I'll try to do a quick turnaround to summarize the materials and post them here even if it means losing some sleep.

Monday, July 30, 2007

More On The Weakness Of Our Region's Transportation Team

I know I was hard on our region's transportation team in the previous post. Yet, my concern is that our transportation team is somewhat mediocre compared to the teams in other regions. By "transportation team" I mean that extended network of planners, academics, NGOs and transportation agency executives that is largely responsible for the stewardship of our regional transportation system.

One big indication of the relatively poor quality of our region's transportation team is the failure of this region's Urban Partnership Program grant application. Another indicator is the lack of a Chicago area presence on national transportation policy making committees and professional organizations.

For example, below is a recent DOT press release announcing the appointment of an Intelligent Transportation Systems Advisory Committee. Intelligent vehicle/intelligent roadway technology is at the cutting edge of research and funding as we search for ways to use our highways more efficiently and more safely. There is significant potential that such systems and equipment could comprise a significant economic growth sector over the next several decades.

So, review the list of appointees and what do you see. Not one transportation official, academic, or industry representative from this region was named to this important committee. This is another unfortunate indication that this region's transportation team lacks the depth and creativity sufficient to be asked to be a part of what could be the "next big thing" in surface transportation.

We can debate the causes--institutional fragmentation, poor political leadership, and the like--but the fact remains that when the federal government looks for innovation in managing today's transportation system (the Urban Partnership Program) and in laying the foundation for a more sophisticated highway operating system (ITS Advisory Committee) it doesn't look to this region for help. That is a problem because to maintain its global competitiveness this region can't be a laggard when it comes to transportation.

* * *

US Transportation Secretary Names ITS Advisory Committee Members
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has named the following candidates to serve on the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Advisory Committee, pursuant to Section 5305(h) of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The ITS Advisory Committee is charged with reviewing areas of ITS research being considered for funding by the Department and advising the Secretary on ITS aspects of the Department's strategic plan. The ITS Program is overseen by the Department’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). For more information, contact Marcia Pincus in the ITS Joint Program Office.

1. Randell H. Iwasaki. Mr. Iwasaki is Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Transportation.
2. Alfred Foxx. Mr. Foxx is Director of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
3. John M. Inglish. Mr. Inglish is General Manager on the Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees.
4. Ann Flemer. Ms. Flemer is Deputy Director of Operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission of the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
5. Dr. Lawrence D. Burns. Dr. Burns is Vice President of General Motors for Research and Development and Strategic Planning.
6. Tomiji Sugimoto. Mr. Sugimoto is Vice President of Honda Research and Development Americas, Inc.
7. Robert Peter Denaro. Mr. Denaro is Vice President of NAVTEQ.
8. Iris Weinshall. Ms. Weinshall is former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.
9. Ronald Greer Woodruff. Mr. Woodruff is Senior Vice President of Corporate Safety and Security for J.B. Hunt Transport.
10. Bryan P. Mistele. Mr. Mistele is Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Inrix Technologies.
11. John Worthington. Mr. Worthington is President of Transcore.
12. Joseph Averkamp. Mr. Averkamp is Director of Product Strategy for Sprint-Nextel.
13. Dr. M. Granger Morgan. Dr. Morgan is a Professor and Department Head of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
14. Dr. Joseph M. Sussman. Dr. Sussman is JR East Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering within the Engineering Systems Division at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
15. Dr. Kenneth J. Button. Dr. Button is a Professor of Public Policy at the George Mason School of Public Policy and is Director of both the Center for Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics, and the Center for Aerospace Policy Research.
16. Dr. Adrian Lund. Dr. Lund is President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute.
17. Michael Replogle. Mr. Replogle is the Transportation Director for Environmental Defense.
18. Thomas C. Lambert. Mr. Lambert is Vice President and Chief of Police of the Department of Police and Traffic Management at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston, TX.
19. Steve Albert. Mr. Albert is Director of the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University.

Hilkevitch Stalls Out On Urban Partnership Program Article

John Hilkevitch's article in today's Tribune about this region's failure to even place in the race for one of five Urban Partnership Program grants gave this region's transportation team an undeserved pass.

In the article, entitled "Gridlock Plan Stalls Out: Millions to Ease Pain are Going Elsewhere," Hilkevitch noted the irony that this region, with the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation, will not get a penny of the $1.1 billion congestion relief grant money. As he observed, "the goal of the contest was to encourage state and local officials to think creatively--especially at a time of shrinking federal matches for transportation projects and tight state budges--to ease the growing gridlock facing drivers, public-transit commuters and businesses that rely on over-the-road deliveries."

He described the "preliminary concepts" that made up this region's application. These concepts included new vehicle control technology for vehicles running on new lanes in the I-55 median, congestion pricing on both I-55 and the Northwest Tollway, and variable pricing of parking in downtown Chicago. Hilkevitch's assessment of why this region's application failed is as follows:

The federal government made it clear proposals that featured a strong congestion-pricing component would have an advantage.

The government considers congestion pricing of transportation systems an essential tool to smoothing out traffic flow, reducing pollution and increasing the capacity of existing highways without heavy investment in new construction. The idea is to use price incentives to encourage drivers to travel at off-peak times or consider taking mass transit instead of paying a higher fee to drive on the most congested roads at the busiest times.

The political and transportation leaders in the Chicago region and in the state have been slow to break away from the status quo and embrace congestion pricing, perhaps afraid that drivers and businesses would protest the user fees. Only the Illinois tollway authority has a limited congestion fee, which is available to commercial vehicles equipped with I-PASS toll-collection transponders. Toll-rate discounts are applied depending on the time of day.

An obvious place to expand congestion pricing would be on the express lanes of the Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways.

According to Hilkevitch, this region's transportation team was"surprised" and "disappointed" with the failure of this region's application to advance:

Illinois officials said they were disappointed and surprised their application to the Urban Partnership competition failed to advance. It means the Chicago area, which is the second most-congested region in the U.S., lost its chance to receive hundreds of millions of dollars. Officials attributed the lack of success to deadline pressure to submit the application, the large number of agencies involved in the process and strong competition from other regions of the country.

Why Hilkevitch, normally a careful reporter, unquestionably accepted the explanation given by these officials for the failure of this region's application is hard to understand. Chicago had the same amount of time as very other urban region to prepare its application after DOT announced the program in late 2006. Every applicant including this region had the same April 30, 2007 deadline. Indeed, it appears that this region's transportation team had the benefit of a DOT briefing on the program. (DOT handout here.)

Given the congestion problems facing this region, our extensive highway and transit networks, and the fact that roughly 2-3 million local vehicles already are fitted with a toll collection device (i.e., the I-PASS), this region was especially well-positioned to meet DOT's requirements for the Urban Partnership Program regardless of the number of applicants. Given the ambitious scope of the Program, it is unlikely that there was a large number of applicants. Yet, Hilkevitch never verified if local transportation team representatives had any factual basis for pointing to a "large number" of applicants to explain the failure of this region's entry.

The sad fact is that our transportation team and their local and state political clients failed to submit a credible proposal containing "the innovative congestion-busting programs that can be quickly implemented using what's called the four Ts--tolling, transit, telecommuting and technology." This region lost because it is behind its urban competitors when it comes to transportation planning and its willingness to use road pricing as a tool to both allocate increasingly valuable highway real estate to vehicles and raise money for alternatives like public transit. As Hilkevitch stated:

All the proposals in the [Chicago area] federal grant application would take time -- and some local investment -- to implement, officials said.

But quick action -- not long-range planning -- is what the U.S. Department of Transportation was looking for.

Two quotes from Hilkevitch's article illustrate the challenges this region faces if it expects to move into the front ranks when it comes to transportation planning and execution. The first quote is from David Spacek, IDOT's bureau chief who had the unenviable job of coordinating the local effort: "We put together what we thought were some interesting concepts, but we really didn't know where it was going to go."

DOT made it clear that "interesting concepts" would not cut it, yet this region's transportation team submitted an application containing nothing but concepts. When your local transportation experts say "we really didn't know where it was going to go," you know you are in trouble!

Has the region's transportation team learned from this $200 million plus mistake? It doesn't appear so. First, they blame the loss on bogus reasons like "deadline pressure" and a "large number" of competitors rather than the fact that they submitted an application filled with concepts rather than the kind of concrete plans that could be implemented in a few years, which is was DOT clearly said it was requiring.

Second, it appears that our transportation team is more than willing to retreat to a comfortable cocoon spun of nostalgia for grandpa's highway system--lots of capacity, little congestion and plenty of tax revenue--rather than take on the difficult task of advocating for innovative pricing strategies that respond to today's conditions--growing demand for the limited resource of highway capacity and an underfunded transit sytem.

Hilkevitch quotes Tom Murtha, a senior planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning: "The fact that we were not chosen is a setback, but we are going to pursue some studies and attempt to move forward soon."

Yep, let's follow up on an important grant application that failed because it was filled with too many preliminary concepts and not enough concrete proposals with more studies.

Maybe Hilkevitch chose not to go hard on the very people he must rely upon day in and day out for sources and quotes for his transportation beat. Maybe he thought that harsh criticisms belong on the editorial page and not in his column. Maybe he thought that the Murtha and Spacek quotes were enough to drive home the point that our region's transit team is more than a bit hapless.

However, his column format gave him more editorial license, he failed to look behind the lame explanations for why this region's application was rejected, and he did not identify the source(s) of the political pressures that prevented congestion pricing from being anything other than a preliminary concept in this region's application.

Hilkevitch stalled out. Maybe it is contagious when it comes to the Urban Partnership Program!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Just One More Thing. . . Mandatory Indexed Fares

Steve Jobs is famous for using the line "just one more thing" at the end of a media event to roll out new product surprise.

Our elected State leaders appear to be moving closer to hammering out a budget for the full fiscal year. When their discussion turns to the transit funding and RTA reform package (SB 572) wouldn't it be great if they added one more thing, namely, a requirement that transit fares be adjusted annually and automatically to match the increase in the consumer price index.

There already is talk in the air of relatively modest fare increases being part of the transit deal. Other major transit agencies have recently instituted fare increases or are considering such: LAMTA, SEPTA, NYMTA.

Why not use the current "doomsday" situation as an opportunity to enact legislation that requires annual indexed fare increases. This would allow the service boards to get out of current herky jerky method of fare increases--holding off fare increases as long as possible (and well beyond per the Auditor General) and then instituting big fare increases after a ritual dance of public hearings, political grandstanding, editorial chest thumping, and the like.

The legislation would make fare indexing mandatory so there would be no need for a public hearing on fare increases if the service board's increase matched the rise in the applicable index. Public hearings concerning fare increases would be required only when a service board wanted to increase fares more than that indicated by the index.

Indexing transit fares would be a nice way to signal that area riders, like area taxpayers, are stepping up to provide more resources to this region's public transit system. Limiting the annual fare increases to the rate of inflation should be a relatively easy pill for riders and their elected officials to swallow. Indexed fares should help stabilize the operating funding base for the service boards.

The electronic fare systems at Pace and the CTA make implementation of annual fare adjustments relatively easy. Maybe the requirement of annual indexed fare adjustments could finally prompt the Metra apparatchiks to get a modern fare collection system. Metra appears to view credit cards and electronic fare collection methods with the same furrowed brow suspicion as it once viewed bicycles and Democrats on its trains. But I digress.

The New York MTA, in so many ways the model for how this region could build a "world class" transit system, is considering a series of modest annual fare increases over the next several years. (Board proposal here.) The three annual increases are designed to yield a cumulative 15 percent fare increase by 2009.

It is way too much to ask of our service boards and the RTA to implement a coordinated fare indexing system. Legislative leaders, it is time for one more thing in the transit package and that is a requirement of annual fare increases indexed to inflation. Fare indexing is something both proponents and opponents of transit funding increases can agree on. Proponents see fare indexing as a way to increase transit funding while opponents see fare increases as a way to instill fiscal discipline in the users of public transit. Fare indexing is thus a way to help build the veto-proof super-majority for the transit reform/funding package.

There are transit utopianists who believe that fare indexing will hurt transit because any fare increase will drive away some transit customers. There are two answers to this. First, transit is not a cheap public good. It is fiscally responsible to ration that public good fairly painlessly through fare increases that match inflation. Second, the stronger funding base provided by a system of indexed fares likely will allow the service boards to provide a higher quality of service. Better service quality will win back more customers to transit than will be lost via the small annual fare increases.

Just one more thing. Is it too much to ask?

Urban Partnership Program: Update

The failure of the region's transportation team to make it past the first round in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Urban Partnership Program and its $1.1 billion was a big loss. The loss illustrated just how far behind this region is compared to other urban areas when it comes to embracing innovative solutions to transportation problems. Forget our pretensions of having or building a "world class" transportation system. This area couldn't even beat the likes of Denver and Minneapolis.

If this somewhat dated report is to be believed, by August 9th DOT will announce the five winners from among the nine semi-finalists: New York, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami, Denver and Dallas.

Stayed tuned. With a few recent exceptions I guess we are used to watching others compete for the big prizes.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Suburbanites & The New Math

It seems like it was only yesterday that the public officials of Kane County were piling on Steve Schlickman and Leanne Redding, two architects of the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion plan, complaining that the RTA was unfairly squeezing the collar counties for cash to bail out the CTA. Yet, it was literally just yesterday that Kane County official were praising an RTA proposal to amend SB 572 to change the funding splits between the three service boards and the RTA.

As you might recall, SB 572 provides for a one-quarter of one percent increase in the RTA sales tax rate throughout the six-county region. This will increase the sales tax rate to 0.5% in the collar counties and 1.25% in Cook County. (In addition, the collar counties will be able to impose another 0.25% sales tax that they can use at their discretion for road and transit projects.) This tax increase should raise roughly $300 million in new money for transit.

SB 572 also provides for a real estate transfer tax in the City of Chicago only. It is unclear how much revenue this tax would raise. Representative Julie Hamos estimates the revenue at $42 million while the Illinois Department of Revenue pegs the new revenue from the transfer tax at almost $100 million.

Under SB 572 all of this new money regardless of source is to flow to the service boards through the current sales tax allocation formula in the RTA Act and from the RTA through its allocation of discretionary operating funds. At the end of the day, the CTA was to get 60% of the new money, Metra 30% of that money and Pace 10%. This allocation is consistent with historical levels.

What has changed? The Daily Herald reports that "the RTA cut the amount of cash going to the CTA, raised the amount going to Metra and Pace and required Chicago taxpayers to pony up much more in the form of a real estate transfer tax." The new "compromise" will see the CTA getting 48 percent, Metra 39 percent and Pace the remaining 13 percent.

It is appears, however, that this "compromise" may be less than meets the eye. The key question is whether the new 48%/39%/13% allocation formula applies to the revenue from the Chicago-only real estate transfer tax if it is enacted. Certainly, if the CTA agreed to such a huge haircut in its share of all of the new operating funds, a reduction of 20%, then the CTA is either stupid or desperate or both.

I suspect the CTA is neither. It is more likely that the revised allocation formula applies only to the revenue from the 0.25% increase in the RTA sales tax across the region. The only change is that the Chicago Mayor and city council, rather than the General Assembly, will have to step up and impose the real estate transfer tax. If Chicago does so, all of that new revenue will go to the CTA and in the end the CTA's share of new money will be about 60 percent.

The new "compromise," in other words, likely is nothing more than a numerical sleight of hand that will have no bottom line impact on the service board shares of new money. If the Mayor of Chicago is willing to push through the real estate transfer tax then City representatives can still support the so-called reform package because they know that in the end the City will get approximately 60% of the new revenue. The compromise will, however, allow suburban public officials to thump their chests and say they have beaten back the rapacious hands of the CTA. Providing the suburban officials with that political cover may be the only point of this "compromise."

There is also talk about increasing the size of the RTA Board from 12 to 15 members. The reconstituted board would look as follows:

City of Chicago--5 members selected by Mayor (CTA Board Chair off the RTA Board)
Cook County--5 members--4 selected by the suburban members of the Cook County Board and one member selected by the President of the Cook County Board
Collar Counties--5 members--one from each collar county

The Daily Herald article, however, indicates that reconstituting the RTA Board in this fashion is far from a done deal.

Surely some reader has accurate information about whether the proposed new allocation formula applies to all new operating revenue, including the proceeds of a Chicago real estate transfer tax, or just to the 0.25% increase in the RTA sales tax rate. Pray tell if you do. If it turns out that the CTA has agreed to a measly 48% share of all new operating dollars then we truly have some new math.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Congestion Pricing: Tale of Two Cultures

A somewhat acerbic anonymous commentator on an earlier post on congestion pricing Chicago style suggests, among other things, that in some circumstances congestion pricing on highways can cause sprawl. The comment merits a response.

Support for Congestion Pricing

First, the commentator argues that "the support for congestion pricing in NYC is much higher than it was in London or Stockholm before it was introduced in those cities." This assertion is unsupported and appears contrary to the polling data in the Poole article cited in the post. Poole reports that New Yorkers polled 2-1 against Mayor Bloomberg's plan. From all reports I've seen (but don't have time to find to cite just now) concerning the level of support for congestion pricing systems in London and Stockholm, initial public support in those cities was at least as high and likely significantly greater than in New York.

The Two Cultures Of Congestion Pricing

Anonymous commentator also argues that "your talk of pouring congestion pricing revenues into road improvements misses the whole point of the tool." The commentator does not outline the "point" of congestion pricing, but continues, "making driving easier is only going to encourage more driving, which will require higher prices to manage demand."

This argument exposes a key philosophical divide with respect to congestion pricing. For folks like the commentator, "driving" is inherently bad and the point of congestion pricing is to reduce private vehicle use. This certainly is a rational position. Vehicles and highways as currently constructed and operated result in high levels of energy consumption, increase our country's dependence on foreign oil, worsen air pollution, foster obesity, etc. In this view, congestion pricing helps drive people to public transit, bicycles, walking, and other transportation alternatives that have a more benign effect on the environment and that are an antidote to the dread culture of sprawl.

Under this "environmental" approach to congestion pricing, spending congestion toll revenue on highway improvements is counterproductive. As the commentator argues, making driving easier through highway improvements funded by congestion tolls "is only going to encourage more driving." Driving, in other words, is an inherent evil.

In contrast, the "efficiency" approach to congestion pricing views congestion pricing as a tool to help the greatest number of people move the greatest distance in the least amount of time. These proponents focus on how congestion pricing will increase vehicle speeds in the congestion pricing zone. They welcome using congestion tolls to fund highway improvements throughout the region so long as those investments improve transportation system capacity and travel speeds. They worship at the altar of speed and convenience.

The efficiency proponents of congestion pricing are at worst neutral on the question whether driving is a good thing. They recognize that most trips today are made by private vehicles and that the car is a powerful tool of empowerment for many people. They also recognize that a substantial percentage of goods and services are delivered through vehicle travel. These efficiency proponents may celebrate suburban sprawl as the apotheoses of civilization (what are they smoking?) or simply shrug their shoulders, viewing sprawl as an inevitable and not especially delightful by-product of current technology.

Understanding this fundamental philosophical/cultural difference between the two wings of the congestion pricing movement will help us navigate through the debates over congestion pricing in this region. The ironic fact is that in order for congestion pricing to have a prayer in this region the environmental proponents and the efficiency proponents must form a coalition. That will be difficult because they have incompatible agendas.

The environmental proponents of congestion pricing will have to accept the fact that using some of the congestion tolls for highway improvements is politically necessary to get congestion pricing in the first place. They will have to accept that using toll revenue for such improvements will increase driving in the area of those improvements. Yet, a congestion pricing scheme might result in a net decrease in driving and would provide a source of new money for the transit system and other alternatives to the private auto.

Likewise, the efficiency proponents will have to accept that a congestion pricing system will deter driving and may slow average travel speeds as people switch from cars to bicycles, public transit, and walking. Such a reduction in average speed with offend the tender sensibilities of the efficiency proponents, who think that more travel faster is necessarily a good thing for society, even if it just means we can get to Dunkin Donuts a bit faster.

These proponents need to come together in a marriage of political convenience. They will both get something they want, namely congestion pricing, but they both will have to give up much that they prize. That's politics. That's life.

Congestion Pricing And Sprawl

Anonymous commentator also argues that having congestion pricing areas throughout the region is counterproductive. Here's the argument:

You're also not thinking about the land use implications of the different forms of congestion pricing in the region. Price the highways and we'll get more sprawl. Use a downtown cordon and you will probably get more concentrated development around the core. Strategically price on-street and off-street parking throughout the region and you can shape growth as you desire, presumably to reduce sprawl.

This argument does not seem sound. I don't see why a tolled "downtown cordon" is likely to yield "more concentrated development around the core" but tolling elsewhere will yield "more sprawl." Why should we assume that development that is pushed out of the urban core by congestion pricing--if any--will relocate to areas immediately adjacent to the core rather than in relatively low density/low cost suburban sprawl areas? Indeed, isn't the flight of people, jobs and shoppers to the sprawl-blighted suburbs just what the opponents of a Chicago cordon congestion pricing are warning us against?

At the same, why shouldn't we assume that tolling roads in outlying areas will create incentives for people in those supposedly benighted areas to take fewer trips, move closer to their jobs, and the like, all of which will help counteract the centrifugal forces of sprawl? Are the suburban folks immune to price signals, not if the capacity crowds at the outlet malls are any indication. Isn't region-wide tolling, either through expansion of the I-PASS system or through a new generation of GPS technology that charges motorists by miles driven, more likely to counteract sprawl than tolling access to a single, central core area in this six-county region.

Anonymous argues that "making driving easier is only going to encourage more driving, which will require higher prices to manage demand." Is that a problem or an opportunity? What about offering drivers better roads and charging them for the privilege of using them? Using higher congestion tolls from such improved roads will help support the public transit system and other alternatives to the private auto.

We want a system where road improvements yield corresponding improvements in the public transit system. Road tolling throughout the region provides that link.

At the same time, let's focus more energies on technologies that make driving less of an environmental burden and that allow more efficient use of our roadways by safely reducing headways without reducing speeds. Shrinking the environmental gap between transit and driving, which already seems to be occurring, likely can be done more efficiently by focusing on the mode used by 90 percent of the travelers--private vehicles on highways--rather than just trying to entice more of that 90 percent to switch to public transit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Deal a' Cookin?

The Chicago Tribune reports that a state budget deal may be in the works. I hear from reputable sources that the transit funding package contained in SB 572 is likely to pass the General Assembly and may even get enough votes to allow an override of a veto.

Representative John Fritchey reports that the General Assembly may only authorize the Chicago City Council to approve a real estate transfer tax to be used for transit purposes instead of imposing the tax directly. If that is the case, then maybe the City Council should return the favor by enacting the tax but directing that all of the proceeds go to the CTA. The CTA currently is slated for a 60 percent share contemplated of the new revenue under SB 572. Getting all of the real estate transfer tax would be a nice bump up, although it is likely that the RTA would jigger things so the CTA's net share of new operating money is capped at 60 percent.

I've also heard that transit is in line for a substantial share of a new capital funding package. The massive five-year multi-billion dollar per year capital plan proposal that was part of the Moving Beyond Congestion package has gotten little attention in recent months. Increased capital funding is, however, key to revitalizing the region's public transit system.

Maybe you are noticing that transit funding advocates are walking around these days with a new spring in their steps. Is the champagne on chill at RTA headquarters? Or maybe this is all just sunstroke and wishful thinking.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Congestion Pricing Locally: Lessons from New York

With New York's congestion pricing plan back from the dead, it is possible to contemplate a local congestion pricing model despite Alderman Burke's pessimism and loud whining from motorists about recent increases in downtown parking rates that hints at the vociferous response that any congestion pricing system locally is likely to receive.

Poole's Article

In a Sunday op-ed column in Newsday, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a leading proponent of congestion pricing, lays out a more workable model for congestion pricing. His analysis is consistent with other research discussing what is necessary to garner sufficient public and political support for road pricing schemes.

Poole provides a useful definition of congestion pricing: "'Congestion pricing' means charging drivers a toll to use roads at time and places where demand exceeds capacity." He goes on to claim that "in every case, congestion pricing has reduced weekday vehicle counts enough to meaningfully speed up traffic flow, offering time savings for motorists and bus travelers."

Poole cites two major flaws in Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal. The first flaw is that the $8 daily charge is too low to reduce traffic significantly. The New York plan projected a 6 percent reduction in Manhattan traffic, far below the 15-20 percent reductions in London and Stockholm, where the congestion charges are higher.

The second flaw, according to Poole, is that the net revenue from the New York congestion charge, "only" a few hundred million dollars annually, would not fund much in the way of better transportation infrastructure. Further, all of that money would be devoted to transit improvements. What this means is that the beneficiaries of the congestion pricing system would not see all that much benefit while those paying the charge, namely, auto drivers, would see no benefit. Hence, support for the New York plan was muted while opposition has been vociferous.

Poole's solution is to increase the efficacy of the system and spread the revenue to mute the opposition from drivers. He proposes that New York should follow the Stockholm model, where the congestion pricing area coverings a relatively large part of the city and where a substantial portion of the net revenues is used to fund highway improvements. According to Poole, when the Swedes starting devoting some of the congestion fees to highway improvements, public support for the system shot up to 67 percent.

Poole thus suggests that the New York plan be revised so the congestion fee is high enough to deter 20-25 percent of the traffic to the Manhattan business district. He estimates that this would take roughly a $16 daily toll. In addition, New York should "devote a major share of that larger revenue to highway projects that offer congestion relief in the other boroughs, which would also benefit commuters from outside the city who have to go through those boroughs to get to town"

Poole closes his article on an optimistic note. He claims that the idea of congestion pricing "is robust enough to be doable without federal financial support" and predicts that if the plan funds suburban transportation improvements that the New York program "could be just as popular throughout the metropolitan area as Stockholm's."

Local Implications

This region is well-situated to implement the kind of broad-based congestion pricing system that Poole recommends. First, there are well known congestion trouble spots outside of the Loop--the Eisenhower, the Circle, the Dan Ryan and I-190 into O'Hare all come to mind with respect to non-tolled roads and the Tollway has trouble spots as well. Second, there are significant transit assets in many of these corridors (e.g., Blue Line in Kennedy and Eisenhower rights of way).

Putting these two together suggests a congestion pricing system installed in such major corridors and supporting both highway and transportation improvements in those corridors. In this way, motorists would see that the tolls they pay would be funding both highway improvements and public transit alternatives. This might mute some of the opposition to the tolls.

Likewise, public transit riders would see improvements both in terms of what money can buy (e.g., banishing slow zones from the Blue Line) and quality (e.g., tolled express lanes allow for fast and reliable express bus service). Muting the opposition from drivers and getting the support of the public transit beneficiaries of congestion pricing is what it will take to implement such a system.

A single, compact congestion zone in the City of Chicago funding public transit gives rise to all sorts wealth transfer and city vs. suburban noise. Instead, think of a mosaic of congestion pricing areas throughout the six-county area. Each area would contain both the pricing zone and a set of visible highway and transit improvements funded by the tolls. A portion of the tolls collected--say 10 percent--would go to the local governments in the area to help them deal with any additional traffic diverted from the tolled highways. Presumably, the easiest way to implement and administer the system would be to extend the Illinois Toll Authority's I-PASS system, which already has several million toll collection units in the area.

From today's perspective of a gridlocked state government, a regional transportation team that can't even make it to the second round of the federal Urban Partnership program competition, and a Chicago city government loathe to use HOV/HOT lanes and the like, such a regional congestion pricing system seems far-fetched. The current fragmented and silo-like approach to regional transportation (mixing metaphors)--IDOT, CDOT and local authorities responsible for highways and the RTA and the service boards responsible for public transit--hinders the intermodal approach to transportation that is needed to implement an effective congestion pricing system.

Yet, current institutional arrangements and political alignments are not forever. Repeat that as your mantra as you wind your way through stop-and-start traffic on the expressway, counting your blessings that you aren't the poor jamoke stuck on the bus or train next to you. Or maybe you are that poor jamoke, in which case you repeat the mantra with even more fervor.

Friday, July 20, 2007

New York Congestion Pricing Plan: Resurrection!

Take down the black bunting, push back the gloom and doom, maybe we can get a refund on the casket: New York's congestion pricing plan is back on the table and the city is still in line to capture about $500 million in federal Urban Partnership Program funds. A commission will study the issue, make recommendations to the New York legislature early next year and we will see what happens then. Here's a summary:

The 17-member New York City Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission is charged with submitting its preferred plan to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Legislature by Jan. 31. Bloomberg's plan calls for charging motorists $8 to $21 to enter Manhattan below 86th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Lawmakers will have two months to vote on the commission's recommendations. Spitzer, legislative leaders, the mayor and the City Council will appoint commission members, who will study how to fight congestion and whether Bloomberg's tolls are appropriate.

If the commission chooses a plan different from the mayor's, it must reduce traffic by the same amount he has proposed: 6.3 percent of vehicle miles traveled, or 120,000 cars daily.

If Bloomberg's plan passes the Legislature as is, the city could start collecting tolls as early as March 31. But officials said the city could move forward immediately with the first stages of the plan, minus the fees.

Talk about snatching at least a partial victory from the jaws of defeat. Maybe the congestion pricing idea has legs after all, in New York and perhaps even in this region.

More to come.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Congestion Pricing: R.I.P.?

What a sad week for proponents of congestion pricing in the United States. The New York legislature torpedoed Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious congestion pricing plan for New York City and the City thus missed an apparent deadline for massive federal funding to support that plan and its related public transit improvements.

What was extraordinary about this action is that the congestion pricing plan was backed by many New York editorialists, supported by a network of public interest groups, and would have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars annually for a public transit system that carries the vast majority of the commuters into the Manhattan zone that would be covered by the congestion pricing fee. If that were not enough, New York may have lost approximately $500 million in federal Urban Partnership Program money by failing to proceed with the congestion pricing program.

There are on-going talks to revive the New York congestion pricing plan. Whether the plan can be salvaged and whether the federal government still will be willing to provide the Urban Partnership program money remains to be seen. Until the federal government makes the Urban Partnership Program grant awards to the three lucky finalists, New York still has a chance to tap into those federal funds if its legislature does approve the New York plan. Even if New York ultimately succeeds, however, the bitter struggle over congestion pricing in New York is sure to scare off politicians, transportation agencies and civic organizations in other areas.

Indeed, in the wake of the apparent failure of the New York congestion pricing proposal, Alderman Ed Burke threw in the towel on his congestion pricing proposal for Chicago, declaring that his proposal "has been killed before it could draw breath" and "would not even get a hearing in Chicago City Council."

The conditions in this area are even less favorable for a congestion pricing program than in New York. Here, the editorialists and transportation experts lined up against congestion pricing even before there was a single public hearing on the idea. No major civic group stepped up to support Alderman Burke's proposal, even though there is plenty of evidence from London and elsewhere that congestion pricing has beneficial environmental, quality of life and transportation benefits. Our public transportation service boards and the RTA were silent, as was the Illinois Department of Transportation and CMAP, our region's planning agency. Our government transportation team was eliminated in the first round of the Urban Partnership Program competition so there is no big carrot of federal funding to support congestion pricing, at least in the short term. The Mayor of Chicago, despite highly-publicized visits to innovative public transit cities like Paris and Curitiba, is no Mayor Bloomberg when it comes to vision on public transportation issues.

What accounts for the resistance to congestion pricing? After all, we charge people to access government owned property all the time. Is anyone up in arms that park districts, for example, charge people to occupy space in crowded parks for a summer group picnic? Nor is their a public outcry when government charges for parking.

Why should the public reaction be any different when government charges for occupying valuable highway real estate? Is there just a collective delusion that vehicles and vehicle miles traveled can continue to grow more rapidly than highway capacity with congestion increasing? Have we been so brainwashed by anti-tax right wingers to view any government charge--even those endorsed by conservative economists--with disdain?

My sense is that public transit proponents consistently fail to recognize the powerful hold the private automobile has over the collective imagination. It is all too easy for public transit proponents to view an additional charge on a car as a minor thing that will be more than offset by many of beneficial effects, including an improved environment, increased funding and ridership for public transit, and improved traffic flow in the central city. Those who walk to access public transit and whose commutes are up to 50% longer because we choose to take public transit rather than a car are just not sympathetic to auto users. In our eyes auto users have many transportation advantages over public transit--in terms of speed and comfort--yet they eat up a disproportionate share of resources to get around--e.g., fuel, land space for roads, parking and garages, and clean air. That auto users are being asked to pay a relatively small amount to access the central city seems to us like a minor price to pay.

We just don't get it. For all I know, we are genetically and culturally wired to want to roam without restriction. The private auto radically expanded the roaming powers of everyman. Direct restrictions on that ability to roam, such as congestion pricing, trigger a certain visceral threat response that makes such restrictions hard to implement.

Enough pop psychology. We do know that tolled highways can fly when the tolls are spent on those highways. Witness the Illinois Tollway, which appears to be the only transportation agency in the state right now with sufficient resources to do its job. Maybe Alderman Burke's congestion pricing proposal needs to be retooled so that the money raised goes directly into central city street and traffic improvements rather than into public transit operations. These improvements might benefit public transit at the street level, but the congestion pricing plan would not be pitched as a way for drivers to bail out the public transit system. Rather, it would be pitched as a way to deliver improvements to all those who use city streets, including public transit vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Of course, this new source of revenue might free up City of Chicago resources that could be used to provide more capital for public transit improvements (e.g., rail station rebuilds). But that would be a subtle (but important) side effect rather than the point of the congestion pricing system.

Is this a path out of the congestion pricing political gridlock in this area?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

His Excellent Compact

It must be nice to be the Governor of Massachusetts. It appears that they are referred to by the moniker "His Excellency," which certainly is a snazzier title than anything we use in Illinois.

Today His Excellency Deval Patrick issued Executive Order No. 488, establishing the "Massachusetts Mobility Compact." The Compact was signed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Executive Office of Transportation, the Massachusetts Highway Department, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, The MBTA, Massport, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities.

The Compact describes its purpose as follows:

The Compact's principal mission shall be to improve the delivery of transportation services in the Commonwealth by communicating regularly and more effectively and by adopting a cooperative and coordinated approach to transportation planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance aimed principally at:

a. increasing mobility for people and goods within and through the Commonwealth in a safe, secure, environmentally sustainable, and efficient manner;

b. promoting and adopting administrative efficiency and program improvement initiatives between and among transportation agencies and authorities; and

c. sharing best practice techniques for implementation across transportation modes.

According to news reports, the impetus for the Compact was Governor Patrick's dismay at the fare hikes by Boston's public transit agency (MBTA) at the same time that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was pushing for toll reductions:

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Patrick complained about a proposed T fare hike -- later enacted -- because he said it clashed with the Turnpike Authority's proposal to remove traffic tolls.

One agency, he said, was making it less expensive to drive, while another was making it more expensive to use mass transit systems.

The governor conceded that coordination is commonsense, since each of the agencies is focused on moving people in one mode or another. But he and others said political disputes, turf wars and the independent structure of the MBTA and Massport have impeded past cooperation.

It seems rather extraordinary that public agencies have to be browbeat into entering into an agreement in order to discuss and coordinate transportation planning and projects among themselves. Nevertheless, His Excellency's use of a compact to provide a framework for productive collaboration is a positive step.

Patrick is in the early days of his administration, when initiatives (stunts?) like inter-agency compacts make political sense. While "political disputes, turf wars and the independent structure of the [Tollway, the RTA] and [IDOT] have impeded past cooperation" it is unlikely that our second-term governor would consider a similar compact. Such a compact, however, might be a tool for the next governor to use.

Beal Squeals at SB 572 Funding Plan Critics

Frank Beal, the head of Metropolis 2020 and rumored to be the author of this blog, took a whack at the critics of the funding plan in SB 572 in a letter to the editor in the Daily Herald.

The letter is a bit hard to find so I paste it in below for the convenience of the reader:

Funding formula is no windfall for city

Eric Krol’s July 13 column on RTA funding (“Why some suburban lawmakers oppose RTA plan”) was useful because it addresses an issue that is of critical importance to the economic health of the region. It was, however, less than useful in explaining the proposed tax increases and how they are allocated.

In 2006, the five collar counties paid about $119 million for transit service.

Suburban Cook County paid about $395 million and the city of Chicago paid $231 million.

Under the proposed new legislation, taxes would increase by about $100 million in the city of Chicago, $100 million in suburban Cook County and $120 million in the collar counties.

As the article pointed out, 60 percent of the new revenue would go to the CTA, 30 percent to Metra and 10 percent to Pace. This distribution is comparable to the allocations that have been in place since 1984.

Further, it is important to remember that over 80 percent of all transit trips in the region are on the CTA, and that the CTA serves over 60 percent of the transit riders in suburban Cook County — more than the combined ridership of Metra and Pace.

The implication that this legislation gives the CTA some kind of windfall — and that its benefits go disproportionately to Chicago — is just not correct.

Finally, the business community does not look at this issue the way some politicians do. Business leaders know that a healthy, 21st century region has to have a strong transit system to get employees to work and customers to their stores, and to reduce the traffic congestion that is paralyzing the economy.

They don’t keep a city vs. suburbs score card. They care only about a region that works together to help the economy.

Frank Beal

Executive Director

Chicago Metropolis 2020

Friday, July 13, 2007

Is SB 572 A Suburban Bailout of the CTA?

In an unguarded moment some weeks ago, RTA Chairman Jim Reilly told a group of DuPage County public officials that Metra was the "winner" under the RTA reform package that has become S.B. 572. Yet, as Eric Krol reports in the Daily Herald, some suburban politicians are complaining that the package is unfair to the suburbs.

U.S. Representative Mark Kirk, the co-leader with Representative Melissa Bean of the Suburban Transportation Commission who has grandstanded at several Commission hearings, figures prominently in the article, as do State Representatives Michael Bond and Jim Durkin. Here's the basis of their opposition to SB 572 as reported by Krol:

Here’s specifically why some don’t like the plan: By Bond’s calculations, which are backed up by a legislative analysis, the suburbs would be paying $220 million more in sales tax. The city of Chicago would pay an additional $100.5 million in sales and real estate transfer taxes.

But of the $322.5 million collected, the CTA would get $193.5 million, Metra $96.75 million and Pace $32.25 million, according to the analysis. The CTA gets 60 percent of the booty, but city folks are paying only about a third of the new taxes.

For years, the suburbs have watched 15 percent of every transit sales tax dollar go to the RTA, which then funnels nearly all of it to the CTA, and they’ve been cool with that — after all, Metra commuters often get on CTA buses and trains when they arrive downtown. But critics see the new tax as a double-whammy for the suburbs.

There are at least four flaws in the "CTA bailout" claim:

First, it appears that City of Chicago taxpayers will be contributing more than $100.5 million in new tax revenue. The Illinois Department of Revenue has estimated that the real estate transfer tax, which will be imposed in Chicago only if SB 572 passes, will raise about $99 million by itself. The 0.25% increase in the existing RTA sales tax in Chicago will raise at least $50 million, for a grand total of about $150 million. This is 50 percent higher than the tax increase number used by these suburban critics. Obviously, there is some disconnect between the revenue assumption used by Representative Hamos ($42 million) and that calculated by the Department of Revenue ($99 million) with respect to the impact of the real estate transfer tax.

Second, this critical analysis of the CTA "bailout" is premised on the assumption that no suburbanite rides the CTA. The Auditor General's Report indicates (pg. 325 of 450), however, that about 22.7% of transit trip boardings and 18.6% of passenger miles taken on transit by suburban Cook County residents are on the CTA. The sales tax increase in suburban Cook County will raise close to $100 million. Taking a midpoint percentage of 20% between trips and passenger miles, this yields $20 million. This amount, plus the $150 million being generated by the City equals $170 million, not far from the $193.5 milllion that the CTA will be getting under the Kirk, et al. analysis.

Third, the proposed new operating money for the CTA is in line with what one might expect it to receive based on several common metrics. For example, compare the reported distribution of the proposed new operating subsidies:

Proposed Distribution of New Operating Money
CTA - 60%
Metra - 30%
Pace - 10%

with the following distributions:

Passengers (2005)
CTA - 80.2%
Metra - 13.4%
Pace - 6.4%

Passenger Miles
CTA - 55.1%
Metra - 41.2%
Pace - 7.3%

When the proposed new operating money is considered as a percentage of total operating revenue and total operating expense, Pace not the CTA comes out the winner:

New Operating Money as Percentage of Service Board 2007 Total System Generated Revenue
CTA - 35%
Metra - 33.9%
Pace - 60.4%

Source: (RTA 2007 Budget Book at pg. 31 of 146)

New Operating Money as a Percentage of Service Board Total Operating Expense
CTA - 17.1%
Metra - 17.5%
Pace - 19.4%

CTA riders certainly do not come out ahead under the allocaton of new money on a per trip basis:

New Operating Money Per Trip
CTA: $0.42
Metra: $1.26
Pace: $0.87

Fourth, the collar counties, which are pushing for expensive new Metra projects like the STAR Line and the Southeast Service, still would be paying a substantially smaller share of RTA taxes relative to their population and system use even after SB 572 goes into effect:

Population Shares
Chicago - 34%
Suburban Cook - 29.4%
Collar Counties - 36.6%

Share of RTA Taxes After SB 572
Chicago - 32.9%
Suburban Cook - 57.3%
Collar Counties - 9.8%

Share of Transit Trips
Chicago - 66.5%
Suburban Cook - 19.7%
Collar Counties - 13.9%

Share of Passenger Miles
Chicago - 41.6%
Suburban Cook -- 27.9%
Collar Counties -- 30.5%

If anything, rather than complaints of a "CTA bailout," it should be the suburban Cook County political representatives excoriating their collar county suburban brethren for failing to pay their fair share of the expense of our regional public transit system. This is especially so since much of Metra's capital investment--e.g., extension of UP West Line to Elburn, new Southwest service, and four new start projects--are focused on improving service to the collar counties and will be expensive to operate once built.

In sum, nothing in this data suggests that SB 572 marks an significant change in the current service board funding shares. As Krol notes in his article, the "CTA has more riders and more infrastructure" than Metra or Pace. Under the plan CTA will get roughly 60 percent of the new revenue. This percentage is consistent with the operating subsidy share the CTA gets today, which, as Krol observes, is a percentage the suburbs "have been cool with."

So, no thanks to U.S. Representatives Kirk and Bean and their General Assembly fellow travelers for stirring up this "suburbs bail out CTA" pot when the collar counties (but certainly not suburban Cook County), appear to be getting a swell deal even if SB 572 passes.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Open Letter to Representative Hamos

Representative Hamos--

It's great that you are a reader of and poster on this blog. Despite an occasional snarky comment, I think the consensus view among readers, and citizens throughout the six-county region, is that you have made an extraordinary commitment of time and energy to the public transit issue over the past few years. That dedication is admirable and much appreciated, even by those who disagree with your proposals.

I am writing because the commonly expressed view is that the RTA governance portion of your bill (Amendment No. 1 to S.B. 572) is almost certainly doomed to failure. (The comments to this recent post are indicative.) The thrust of this criticism is that the current RTA Board has failed to exercise many of the powers already vested in the Board by the current RTA Act. Two examples suffice: (1) the RTA's failure to manage the process of selecting and prioritizing capital investment decisions and (2) certifying service board operating budgets as in compliance with the statutory requirements for balanced and prudent budgets despite there use of plug numbers for many millions of dollars of new State revenue that the State had not (and has not yet) committed to provide.

Under the RTA's stewardship, public transit is this region carries far fewer customers, has a much reduced market share and costs more than it did when the RTA took on its current shape in 1983. In recent years, as the Auditor General has found, the RTA has allowed the service boards to live beyond their means, necessitating substantial State bailouts that keep getting larger each year.

Despite this evidence of sustained poor performance, your bill represents incremental change at best. Yes, the RTA will get some new powers that in the hands of effective leadership might do some good. There is little confidence, however, that this RTA Board will effectively exercise those powers. If the current RTA Board fails to exercise its current powers, why do you think the same group will act differently if vested with incrementally more power?

The region responded to past public transit crises in the mid-1970s and early 1980s with much more aggressive measures that involved new organizational arrangements and changes in leadership. Likewise, when the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis the legislature took drastic measures that radically revamped school governance and financial oversight. If we truly are in a crisis now with respect to public transit, why are your prescriptions so cautious and limited? If and when SB 572 passes, after all, the same institutional arrangements stay in place and the same set of people continue to run our region's public transit system.

Why did you reject a temporary emergency oversight authority? Why did you reject a much expanded State role in this region's public transit system to reflect the State's substantial financial contribution to that system? Why did you reject combining the RTA and the service boards? Why did you reject requiring a change in leadership as the price for increasing the RTA's taxes? Why have you rejected tolling/congestion pricing options that could deliver both money for transit and environmental/congestion relief benefits?

We know that you are working on some new transit governance proposals. (Indeed, you promised to post the public comments on the current transit governance proposal early this week.) Maybe you could take some time explain to explain to this group why you have chosen a much more modest (measured?) response to this transit funding crisis than did your predecessors in crises past.

Again, thanks for your efforts.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

London Calling

"London calling to the faraway towns."

The clash between supporters and opponents of congestion pricing in cities like New York and Chicago (local example here) should shift into neutral for a moment while everyone considers the London example. Transport for London has released its fifth annual report on London's congestion pricing program. The summary is here and the full report is here.

The Report finds that:

Since the Congestion Charge scheme started, London has seen:
  • Traffic entering the zone reduced by 21 per cent
  • In comparison with 2002 conditions, congestion in 2006 was eight per cent lower, but this is increasingly misleading about the scheme’s performance. When compared to conditions without charging, Congestion Charging is continuing to deliver congestion relief that is broadly in line with the 30 per cent reduction achieved in the first year
  • An increase in cycling within the zone of 43 per cent
  • Reductions in accidents and key traffic pollutants in and around the charging area
  • Public transport successfully accommodating displaced car users; and bus services continuing to benefit from reduced congestion and ongoing investment of scheme revenues
  • Retail footfall now outperforming the rest of the UK and returning to a pattern of year-on-year growth
  • No effect on property prices
  • £123 million [approximately $250 million] being raised, in the financial year 2006/07, to invest back into London's transport system
The Illinois Tollway announced recently that it has sold over 3 million I-PASS/E-ZPass toll collection devices. These handy devices presumably are accompanied by electronic accounts and supported by a large customer support infrastructure. Most of these tags are installed on vehicles in the region. They are just waiting to be utilized in congestion pricing and other tolling initiatives throughout the region outside of the Tollway itself.

Where London and Stockholm had to build congestion pricing systems from scratch, this region already has a huge highway tolling infrastructure in place. If the General Assembly and the Governor can't or won't connect these dots, maybe the counties and cities in this region can do so via intergovernmental agreements and use congestion pricing and tolling to help fund regional transportation initiatives. Some local officials, far outside the orbit of the RTA/IDOT/CMAP/CDOT experts, are seeing and seizing upon that potential. Maybe they will lead the way for the rest of us.

"London calling to the imitation zone"

(Yes, I know my Clash references mark me as an old fogey.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New York City Congestion Pricing Battle

Mayor Bloomberg's plan to bring congestion pricing to New York City is encountering stiff and perhaps fatal opposition in the New York legislature. The legislature adjourned without taking action on the plan, but may reconvene in special session next Monday, July 16, when it could take action.

The federal government has set a Monday deadline for New York to approve the plan. If New York fails to do so, it could lose as much as $500 billion of the $1.1 billion in this year's Urban Partnership Program.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has emerged as a leading opponent of the proposal. His "Interim Report: An Inquiry into Congestion Pricing as Proposed in PlaNYC 2030 and S.6068" concludes that the benefits of congestion pricing are speculative and that mass transit improvements need to be in place before people are forced to ride public transit.

It appears that a large coalition of transit and environmental groups have joined in support of the congestion pricing proposal. One group, Transportation Alternatives, issued a report reputing Brodsky's report. It is entitled "The Forgotten Majority: 3 Overlooked Truths about the Impact of Congestion Pricing on New York City's Transit-Reliant Mainstream."

Brodsky's position is that the Mayor's proposal is unfair to the "working people" in the outlying boroughs, who on average earn less than those who live in Manhattan. TA responds that most New Yorkers take transit and would benefit from the transit improvements that could be funded from the congestion fees. Drivers, even in the outer boroughs, tend to be relatively affluent and hence able to pay the toll necessary to access Manhattan by car. In TA's view, the burden of congestion pricing would fall on a relatively small and relatively wealthy group while the benefits, both in terms of more money for improved transit and improved quality of life from a healthier environment, would be distributed widely.

This dispute probably illustrates the central dynamic at work wherever congestion pricing is proposed. Transit users will benefit from congestion pricing if the proceeds are used to fund transit improvements. They plus their environmental/quality of life allies will line up in favor of congestion pricing. On the other side will be those who drive to the urban core. This group on average will be relatively affluent and likely quite vocal against congestion pricing. The class divide will not be clear, however. Wealthy transit riders may support congestion pricing while there are plenty of poor people traveling by car who will wish to avoid paying a toll.

It will come down to the numbers. The greater the percentage of people traveling to the urban core by public transit the more receptive the region likely will be to congestion pricing. Cities like London and Stockholm that have successfully implemented congestion pricing had a high percentage of transit use and thus a natural base of support for congestion pricing. Even in those cities, however, the congestion pricing approach had to overcome stiff opposition.

New York has a significantly higher percentage of trips by transit to its urban core than does Chicago to its urban core. The difficulty that Mayor Bloomberg is having in getting the New York plan in place--even with the federal government waving a $500 million carrot--suggests that it will be difficult for this region to implement a congestion pricing plan.

Note, however, that New York's trouble stems from having to get state legislative approval for its congestion pricing plan. Does anyone know if Chicago would have to get legislative approval to implement a congestion pricing system in a downtown zone? Or can it do so by exercising its home rule powers. If Chicago would not have to go to Springfield for approval, then the odds of a local congestion pricing system goes up significantly.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Make No Small Plans: Metra and Norquist

Metra is holding public hearings on two of its four New Starts projects Tuesday and Wednesday nights this week. The two rail lines involved are the UP-West and UP-Northwest lines.

Metra has a website with information about four New Start projects, including some fairly detailed project justifications: here In addition to UP projects, the site covers the STAR Line and the SouthEast Service rail line.

It seems a little incongruous that Metra is holding hearings on system expansion projects when the Moving Beyond Congestion effort has yet to yield any new operating or capital dollars for Metra and the other service boards. In these tough times for transit, maybe a bit of optimism is just what the doctor ordered.

We can expect wide public support for these system expansion projects. That should not be surprising when the hearings are being held in communities that will directly benefit from expanded and improved Metra service. What is lacking is any forum where the relative merits of transit capital improvement projects are discussed. Does the CTA's Circle Line make better sense than the STAR Line? Should the SouthEast Service get priority over the White--err--STAR Line? Should new transit investment be directed at rapidly growing suburban areas to try to foster transit-oriented development, or directed at the inner suburbs and Chicago to stimulate more environmentally sound in-fill development?

John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Congress for the New Urbanism, likely would have much to say about these questions. His commentary in today's Sun-Times excoriates the State of Illinois for failing to deliver a major new investment in transit in the region, indeed, in the entire state.

Norquist contrasts the looming implementation of doomsday budgets at our public transit service boards with the major new investments in transit in New York, London, Paris and elsewhere. He heaps special scorn on the idea of reviving the Crosstown Expressway when other these other cities are dismantling disruptive parts of their high-speed road system in highly urbanized areas. Here is the heart of his assessment:

Meanwhile, with transportation funding still unresolved in the Illinois legislature, Northern Illinois is girding for service cuts and fare increases. While people fear the scheduling headaches that could result, something bigger is at stake. Continuing lopsided support for highways over transit will jeopardize Chicago's ability to compete as a world financial center and begin putting at risk the many thousands of jobs connected to Chicago's commodity and financial markets. It will forgo opportunities to strengthen Downstate regions as well.

Here's how. In 2004, with CTA and Metra ridership growing as young professionals sought out the urban excitement and opportunity of the Midwest's economic capital, the State of Illinois pulled back on investment in the region's transit system. The state kept up spending on highways and tollways, but the capital funds that pay for transit improvements and serious repair began drying up. Instead of positioning Chicago to compete with London, New York and Tokyo in ensuring efficient, predictable transportation to and from its employment core, the state seems more interested in competing with Detroit to see which region makes a better truck stop.

Does Norquist's focus on the "employment core" ignore the fact that this region has several major employment cores--or corridors? If Metra's data is to be believed, by 2030 roughly two-thirds of the population and employment in the region will be outside of Chicago. Does Norquist favor heavy transit investment in these areas or would he view such investment as an imprudent bet on getting folks out of their cars in a built environment that is likely to be long hostile to non-auto forms of transportation?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Urban Partnership Program: Learning From The Loss

The U.S. Department of Transportation rejected Los Angeles' application for the federal Urban Partnership program, just as it rejected this region's application. The Urban Partnership program is designed to provide substantial new funding for regions willing to use pricing policies as one part of a package of congestion relief measures to be implemented in the next several years.

The response of the two regions is interesting. In Los Angeles there was media coverage of the loss by that area's version of our John Hilkevitch/Greg Hinz. (Here and here.) The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority took notice of this loss and has embarked on an effort to implement road tolling within the next three years. (Articles here, here and here.). Some of the tolling options in Los Angeles include:

• Building truck-only toll lanes along an 18-mile stretch of the 710 Freeway, providing a route for commerce from the port into central Los Angeles.

• Adding toll lanes to a section of the 10 Freeway east of Los Angeles that parallels the El Monte Busway.

• Adding toll lanes to the 110 Freeway south of downtown Los Angeles, which already has a carpool and bus lane down the middle.

• Adding toll lanes along the 105 Freeway, which already has both a carpool lane and the Metro Green Line train going down the middle of it.

In contrast, this region's big loss in the Urban Partnership program derby got no press attention. Alderman Burke's downtown cordon pricing trial ballon got shot down before it lifted off. Since DOT's announcement, the RTA and IDOT have been silent on the issues of the Urban Partnership program loss and road pricing even though they were the ones primarily responsible for the failed Urban Partnership program application. I guess the loss of $200-$300 million in new federal transportation money wasn't enough inducement for them to commit to taking a serious look at implementing congestion pricing in this region.

Note, however, that the Illinois Tollway is embarking on an 18-month congestion pricing study. The study will extend to currently non-tolled roads (e.g., Dan Ryan and Kennedy express lanes. Could this be a vehicle for a more robust embrace of congestion pricing by the Tollway and other transportation agencies? Or will IDOT, the City of Chicago and the RTA continue to rely on wishful thinking that traffic congestion will (a) go away somehow or (b) be alleviated if only we pump billions in new State money into the public transit system over the next five years or (c) be taken care of by steadily rising gas prices?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

PIRG Report on Public Transit Funding

The Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has issued a report entitled "Finding Solutions To Fund Transit: Combining Accountability & New Resources For World-Class Public Transportation." The title is a mouthful, but the report is not a handful-- only 23 pages in all.

The report was authored by Brian Imus and Nick Christensen of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Phineas Baxandall, Ph.D, from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (Imus was once rumored to be the author of this blog.)

The report is a nice summary of the issues relating to public transit funding in this region, but it adds little new to the discussion. The full report opens with a chapter entitled "The Value of Public Transit in Northeastern Illinois" that is largely a rehash of a similar sections in the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion reports (preliminary (no longer available online but summary here); final).

The next chapter of the report summarizes the financial pickle in which the RTA and the service boards find themselves. This territory has been plowed before as well. The report goes on to outline seven principals for funding transit (e.g., "efficiency" and "community participation") Nothing new here either, although throughout the report does a good job of summarizing the data clearly and succinctly.

The report saves the best for last. The chapter entitled "Potential Revenue Options" is a very useful summary of how transit agencies throughout the country are funded. It discusses the benefits and problems of each type of funding method. This chapter is a good primer on the issue of transit funding.

The report lays out its recommendations in the final chapter:

-- Increase the existing RTA sales tax rate throughout the six-county region and make sure the State of Illinois matches this revenue at no less than the current 25 percent PTF rate.

-- Broaden the reach and hence revenue potential of the sales tax by applying it to at least some services.

-- Diversify the RTA's funding base by imposing other taxes, such as a real estate transfer tax.

-- Reform the RTA with new "accountability," "transparency" and "efficiency" policies. (Not real specific here PIRG guys!)

Unfortunately, the PIRG report is a bit of too little, too late. There seems to be a fairly high degree of consensus among transit aficionados, the RTA and the editorial boards that public transit should get substantially more capital and operating subsidies and that the RTA should be "reformed" in some fashion by vesting it with greater powers and responsibilities (good luck with that one with this RTA Board). The report nicely repackages this argument for more funding and tips its hat at the need for more RTA powers, but it does not really advance the argument.

The report comes as the General Assembly enters its second month of overtime session. Is there anything in the report that will prompt the clashing titans to agree on a major new transit funding plan? Probably not.

What is surprising and disappointing about the PIRG report is that it is as timid as the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion recommendations. PIRG shies away from tolling/congestion pricing even though those measures have real potential to get people to travel in something other than single occupant vehicles and to provide a funding source for public transit. Like the RTA, PIRG fails to explore potential private sector options, such as empowering jitney vans to supplement the service boards' big bus down big street model.

The "either/or" nature of this region's extendeddiscussion about public transit funding (i.e., either we fund the current system with some RTA nips and tucks or we shrink the current system) is disappointing. Are there other options for moving people from point A to point B that cannot be implemented, much less discussed, because of the occupation of the mass transportation field in this region by the three service boards and the RTA?

Over 50 years this region was confronted with the bankrupt private transportation providers and had the vision to form the CTA rather than keep the bankrupt private providers afloat even longer. Roughly 30 years ago the region confronted the financial problems of both the CTA and the suburban commuter rail and bus services by creating the RTA to provide a fresh start.

This time, when we face similarly challenging circumstances, the response of our politicians, our transit providers, and the various transportation experts like the Metropolitan Planning Council and Metropolis 2020 seems to be more of the same. Why is this crisis any different from the crises in the past that prompted major organizational readjustments and different business models? Why is the consensus response to the crisis this time so much more tepid and, frankly, uninteresting?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Red Ken Bleeds Green For Transit

"Red Ken" Livingstone, the Mayor of London, had a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. His piece is such an effective rebuttal to all the local naysayers opposed to instituting road pricing in this region in places like downtown Chicago that I have copied it in full below.

Note the impact of London's cordon pricing system on public transit: More transit customers, faster transit service, and substantially more money (i.e., "green") for transit. The sharp (83%) increase in the number of trips by bicycle is also noteworthy, because travel by bike is especially cheap and environmentally friendly.

Isn't this a more elegant approach than the more-funding-for-the-status-quo approach that seems to be the regional consensus and that is embodied in SB 572?

* * *
Clear Up the Congestion-Pricing Gridlock
Published: July 2, 2007

THE New York State Assembly ended its session on June 22 without reaching a consensus on Manhattan’s congestion pricing proposal — a delay that may cost New York City some $500 million in federal transportation money. Assembly members have voiced concerns about the economic impact of the program, the effect on traffic outside Manhattan and even the effectiveness of the idea itself.

Four years ago, London was engaged in a very similar debate. We now have the luxury of hindsight. While the two cities’ situations are not identical, they certainly have analogies and therefore, perhaps, the success of London’s program can shed light on the current debate in New York.

At that time, London’s business district was undergoing rapid growth, but it was at capacity in terms of traffic. Efforts to channel more cars into the city center simply led to ever lower traffic speeds, which in turn led to business losses and a decrease in quality of life. Simultaneously, carbon emissions were mounting because of the inefficiency of engine use.

In 2003, London put in place a £5 (about $9) a day congestion charge for all cars that entered the center city (the charge is now £8). This led to an immediate drop of 70,000 cars a day in the affected zone. Traffic congestion fell by almost 20 percent. Emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were cut by more than 15 percent.

The negative side effects predicted by opponents never materialized. The retail sector in the zone has seen increases in sales that have significantly exceeded the national average. London’s theater district, which largely falls within the zone, has been enjoying record audiences. People are still flocking to London — they’re simply doing so in more efficient and less polluting ways.

There has been a marked shift away from cars and into public transport and environmentally friendly modes of travel. There has been a 4 percent modal shift into use of public transport from private cars since 2000. Simultaneously, the number of bicycle journeys on London’s major roads has risen by 83 percent, to almost half a million a day. Cycling has become something of a boom industry in London, with improvement in health for those involved and substantial benefit for the environment.

This success had preconditions. In London, as will be the case in New York or any other city, an enhanced public transportation system was critical. To ensure readiness, we made significant upgrades to public transport. Our investment focused on enhancing London’s bus system, rather than the subway, because we needed to increase capacity in the quickest, most cost-effective way.

Specifications for a modern, more comfortable fleet were introduced, bus lanes were added, and more inspectors were put on to ensure buses ran at regular intervals. With London’s buses a more attractive alternative, the number of bus trips a day has risen to six million, an increase of two million from 2000 — with ridership growing most rapidly among the highest-paid social groups. In turn, this helped relieve pressure on the subway, ensuring it continued to run smoothly. Investment in public transport continues to this day, aided by the revenue from the congestion charge — the equivalent of some $200 million annually.

Like New York’s plan, London’s congestion program initially met with some skepticism. Before the program began, polls showed that public opinion was divided almost exactly evenly. Since then, opinion has shifted to 2-to-1 in favor.

The results have led us to expand the initial program. In February the existing congestion charging zone was extended westward, doubling its size. Traffic in the extended zone fell by 13 percent.

The next stage of congestion charging in London will be a move to emissions-based charging. This will be aimed at deterring vehicles with the highest carbon emissions, like sports utility vehicles, from entering the city center. The new program will impose a payment of £25 per day for such vehicles, as well as abolish the 90-percent exemption that their owners would receive if they were residents of the congestion charging zone. Incidentally, this charge for S.U.V.’s enjoys 3-to-1 popular support.

Is London’s success a guarantee that congestion charging will work in New York? Of course not. But it is an indicator that properly executed congestion pricing works, and works well. Singapore and Stockholm already operate such programs and other cities are examining them. Given the success of congestion charging in London, this is not surprising.