Monday, July 30, 2007

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!


Anonymous said...

Hilkevitch knows not what he speaks of--that is certain.

HealthyCity said...

For the last couple of months, why hasn't every ONE of Hilkevitch's Monday columns been devoted to the subject of the transit crisis? Or, at least, every other one? No wonder the crew in Springfield doesn't move on this: if the Trib's main transportation columnist won't report on the issue more often, why should they care?

I think he actually did a story recently on toilets on transit or something? This blog has done more to try and probe the issues of transit and transportation in general, than Hilk has.