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?


Anonymous said...

One of CNU's co-founders, Peter Calthorpe, basically coined the term "transit oriented development," so I wouldn't doubt Norquist's commitment to the idea. That said, central Chicago continues to have more than half the region's office base, a feat that's only possible thanks to the Loop's rail transit links.

Anonymous said...

And to add to the bigger regional question: do we need a highway out in Kane County for who knows who? But just keeping it to a transit question: Hamos's RTA governance means nothing if it doesn't end this ridiculous situation that allows CTA and Metra (and IDOT and CDOT and the Tollways for that matter) to study, analyze, propose, hire consultants, spend Federal dollars, engineer, have community meetings, hold press conferences, etc., etc., to create these large transportation projects independent of a larger regional process.
It's been shown over-and-over again that this arrangement promotes wasteful projects and it means dollar-for-dollar Illinois gets a smaller share of the Federal pie.

Anonymous said...

1. If it ever passes, SB 572 section 2.01a(i) provides that the RTA would do the study if the proposal might affect more than one provider, but again it is a watered down version in that 9 directors have to agree to take over the study and find that more than one service board is a potential provider. I am starting to wonder if SB 572 is structured in such a way as to be window dressing but not effective.

2. I agree with 9:46 that it is a ridiculous situation to spend all this money on incessant studies independent of a regional process. I have elsewhere called the current transportation bill "the consultants' relief act." Especially in the case of the STAR Line, RTA conducted a Northwest Corridor Study in June 2000, resulting in the STAR Line being recommended in 2003 over alternatives proposed by CTA and Pace. But, apparently, the process starts over from scratch.

3. Let's also not forget that CTA held its hearings on the Circle Line and Red Line Extension. A repeated comment at the Circle Line hearing was why didn't you push the Red Line first.

Anonymous said...

The paralysis in this godforsaken state is unbelievable. These people in state politics have the vision of reptiles, and that's insulting reptiles.

It's particularly depressing given that when you consider the state of Illinois government is essentially owned and operated by Chicago Democrats, you'd think they'd be doing something for Chicago.

I'm not sure what else to do other than the transit agencies presenting a compelling JOINT vision of a joined-together future, and a very dire picture of what will happen if the paralysis does not abate NOW (e.g. being cut from the Olympic bid by the IOC before we even get to the final candidate phase, as happened last time with Istanbul)

How about the CTA and Metra join? We get the downtown transit center (aka Clinton Street Big Dig) linking Ogilvie and Union stations with one another and with the Blue, Pink and Green Lines; we get the transitway on the former proposed Crosstown Freeway alignment; we get the STAR Line and we get a ticketing system that allows customers to pay for the connections as efficiently as they'll be able to use them. In other words, projects that fill proven glaring missing conditions in the system and/or deliver ridership totals that surveys have shown will be huge.

I can't figure out why it is that the Chicago Democrats who run the state government refuse to accept the shambles our transit is in. Maybe we need to hand over control of the state government to St. Louis-area Democrats who actually know what a reliable, clean, dependable transit system means. But then again that would mean denying the fact that Bi-State/MetroLink is run more by Missouri than Illinois.

So, Chicago-area Republicans, will you at least bring back Illinois-FIRST? I don't want to spend the rest of my life in a slow zone on the Red Line.

Tom Bamonte said...

Why wait for SB 572. Section 4.02(b) of the current RTA Act (pasted in below) is pretty clear that the RTA is supposed to be in the driver's seat when it comes to capital investment decisions. That power, plus the RTA's power to review and approve the 5-year capital plans of the service boards, gives the RTA the authority to implement the "larger regional process" to which Anonymous #2 refers.

The danger in characterizing SB 572 as vesting the RTA with substantial new powers is this: If SB 572 does not pass then the service boards can rebuff any RTA initiatives to impose some discipline on the capital investment decisionmaking process by saying that without SB 572 in place the RTA lacks the necessary authority to take such initiatives. That is the risk of putting all the governance eggs in the SB 572 basket rather than facing the issue of why the RTA Board has failed to exercise its existing powers.

Tom Bamonte said...

Oops. Here's the relevant portion of section 4.02(b) of the RTA Act, 70 ILCS 3615/4.02(b):

(b) The Authority shall be the primary public body in the metropolitan region with authority to apply for and receive any grants, loans or other funds relating to public transportation programs from the State of Illinois or any department or agency thereof, or from the federal government or any department or agency thereof. Any unit of local government, Service Board or transportation agency may apply for and receive any such federal or state capital grants, loans or other funds, provided, however that a Service Board may not apply for or receive any grant or loan which is not identified in the Five‑Year Program. Any Service Board, unit of local government or transportation agency shall notify the Authority prior to making any such application and shall file a copy thereof with the Authority.

Anonymous said...

Section 4.02b is Exhibit A in the arraignment of RTA leadership past and present. The current crop however has actually published its phonebook. Forget Place de la Republique. They s/b in red skirts on the Rue Madalene!

Anonymous said...

McCraken et. al. tried it once, and they got a budget standoff from Jarrett et. al orchestrated by Kreusi et. un.

Anonymous said...

"The danger in characterizing SB 572 as vesting the RTA with substantial new powers is this: If SB 572 does not pass then the service boards can rebuff any RTA initiatives to impose some discipline on the capital investment decisionmaking process by saying that without SB 572 in place the RTA lacks the necessary authority to take such initiatives."

Basically a straw man. Even if RTA has the necessary authority, section 4.02(a), as you quoted, states that it is only primary, and it is clear that the RTA has either delegated it or failed to exercise it. In effect, this is the essence to Metra's response to the Auditor General: The RTA now has ample statutory authority it does not exercise. As 9:39 indicates, unless there is a change in the political atmosphere, that won't change, even if SB 572 passes. (I assume that "et un" is Daley.)

Also, as I previously noted, there was a regional competition for the northwest corridor among the service boards, and the STAR Line won.

Anonymous said...

RTA Reform Salon Game

Jackonthebus’ observation that the RTA reforms in SB 572 may be designed as window-dressing is spot on. Here’s my own assessment.

Jimmy Reilly, the policy wonks at MPC and even the moderator of this blog seem to believe that Amendment #1 to SB 572 will reform the RTA and result in a brighter future for transit in our region. In June, the Daily Herald published a story in which it reported on the RTA’s presentation of its tax plan to the DuPage County Board. Under sharp questioning from Director Brien Sheahan of Elmhurst, RTA Chairman Reilly said this: [If the bill passes] “the winner is Metra. The CTA will be made whole but they’d have to swallow the fact they’ve lost control.” This is very interesting since there is nothing in SB572 that is specifically directed at the CTA.

Fact is, new powers, if enacted will not change the balance of power between the RTA and the Service Boards, nor will they change the look and feel of transit. The problem at the RTA is not a lack of power or authority, but a lack of gumption to exercise power, to lay down the law. Exercise of power requires strong leadership at the executive and board level and an organization this is actually organized. All of these qualities are missing at the RTA – past and present. Hamos should know that you couldn’t legislate strong leadership. If anyone thinks the RTA lacks power and authority to deal with the Service Boards, I invite them to read the RTA Act, with special attention to sections 2.01, 2.12, 4.02, 4.05, and 4.11.

The RTA already does have considerable power. The RTA also excels at finding ways not to exercise its powers. Here’s one example drawn straight from the RTA Act.

Sec. 4.05. Financial Statements and Annual Reports. The [RTA] Board shall prepare a complete and detailed report consolidating the audits of the Service Boards and reviewing the state of the Authority, the Service Boards, and of the Public transportation provide by the various Service Boards and transportation agencies. The report shall include evaluations of public transportation in the metropolitan region and of the Authority’s activities . . .

In practice the RTA has turned the annual report into a purely financial report. The review and evaluation are radioactive and too hot to handle.

Interestingly, the proposed new powers look a lot like the old powers. So let’s see how much control the CTA (and presumably Metra and Pace) will loose under a reformed RTA. The proposed changes to the RTA Act fall into six themes as detailed in a recent RTA press release. Predictions of potential impact are this commetor's. This is pretty dry stuff but illustrates how weak the so-called reforms really are.

Strategic Plan and Annual Budgets
Requires the RTA to adopt a long term strategic plan for regional transit that outlines service, fare and ridership goals, sets performance measures and reporting standards, and establishes criteria for evaluating capital projects.

Potential impact: The RTA will adopt Strategic Plans. But they will be just another legislatively mandated pro forma document similar to and even duplicating the Annual Budget & Program and the Five Year Program. The Strategic Plan is and will continue to be based primarily on the Service Board capital programs and so this is a circular reference. The Service Boards will establish performance standards and evaluation criteria so that they and their projects pass muster.

Annual Budgets
Service Board budgets must include details of pension and benefit expenses and the RTA can determine formats, financial practices and assumptions that the Service Boards must use in preparing annual budgets. RTA is also authorized to withhold up to 25% of sales tax revenues and discretionary funds until the RTA approves a Service Board budget.

Potential impact: The RTA will continue doing what it currently does in as much as the RTA already has these powers. The RTA already does establish assumptions for sales tax receipts, economic indicators, FRR, etc. for the Service Boards to use in formulating their budgets (see also section 4.11(b)(2)(v) of the RTA Act. Moreover, the Act already does give the RTA Board the ability to determine financial practices (Section 4.11(b)(2)(vi)). It will be interesting to see if or how CTA pension/benefits are included in the annual budget since it appears these might be removed entirely from the CTA’s books under the new labor agreement. The 25% holdback adds a tactical nuclear weapon to the RTA’s arsenal that just like the strategic nuclear weapon (adoption or not - of the combined budget) will never be used. By the way the RTA already has authority to withhold a portion of a Service Board’s budget (Sec. 4.11(c)(3).

Auditing and Access to Information
Service Boards are required to comply in a timely manner with requests for information from the RTA. The RTA is required to conduct management, performance or financial audits at least once every five years.

Potential impact: Duplicates Section 4.01© and 4.11(d) of the RTA Act. Really illustrates the dysfunctional relationship amongst the RTA and the Service Boards. Audits will be largely a pro-forma exercise much like the current capital project audits. Scope, findings and recommendations of any audit will be subject to intense negotiation between the RTA and the Service Board. As the weak partner, the RTA will fold its cards in these negotiations.

Capital Planning
RTA is required to do Alternatives Analysis for any newly proposed transit expansion projects costing over $25 million where potentially more than one Service Board could be the provider of the proposed service.

Potential impact: This provision would not have any material affect on the current crop of AA studies underway, nor will it have much affect on future AA studies. There is only one operator for a UP-W upgrade, SouthEast Service, STAR Line, Circle Line, Red Line extension, etc. The purpose of AA for the Service Boards is not to plan, but to qualify projects for federal New Starts funding. AA is part of an elaborate negotiated capital grant application culminating in a full funding grant agreement. Of course, RTA can continue to conduct its corridor planning studies. But what will happen when the results – decided by local elected officials - do not match up with stated Service Board priorities? That’s when things get real sticky for the RTA. Oooh doggie.

Coordinated Sales and Marketing
RTA is required to develop a coordinated sales, marketing, advertising and public information program for all transit in the region.

Potential impact: This has the potential for lots of new contracts and spending with little value added. Like it or not transit service in our region is branded by Service Board. Service Boards will likely continue with their individual marketing campaigns and maybe add an RTA logo to their materials/message but they certainly aren’t going to drop their ad or media agencies. Perhaps the CTA will consider moving the RTA logo from behind the front wheel mud flap to eye level on the front of the bus.

Coordination of Fares and Service
The RTA Executive Director is authorized to settle disputes between Service Boards regarding fare coordination, transfers, service coordination, and duplication of service.

Potential impact: There is a recent track record here and its abject failure. Mediation can only work if the parties are willing to participate constructively. Recent experience provides a window to the future. The RTA already has the power to mediate disputes concerning competing services between Service Boards (Section 2.12(a)). In Spring 2006, the RTA attempted to mediate a complaint brought by Pace against the CTA involving changes to CTA bus service in the west suburbs. The results of the RTA’s effort are summed up nicely in an article entitled “RTA Leaves CTA, Pace to Settle Bus route Spat” published in the Chicago Tribune on August 4, 2006. In the article, RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman is quoted as follows: “The discussions didn’t bear any conclusion, I’m leaving it to the two Service Boards now to work that out.”

Innovation, Coordination and Enhancement Fund
A new fund is created to award grants to Service Boards, transportation agencies, and local governments for short term. Lower cost projects and service enhancements.

Potential impact: Service Boards will have a strong hand in writing the rules for this fund. Expect most of the money to go to Service Boards for activities that look a lot like what that they already do, but are re-branded as innovations to qualify for the dough. There already is a section of the RTA Act that is intended to encourage innovation with costs excluded from the farebox recovery ratio (Sec. 2.09 Research and Development). Furthermore, the RTA’s 15% take off the top of the sales tax was intended to provide financial resources to undertake innovations.

All in all, it doesn’t sound like much loss of control for the Service Boards, and least of all the CTA. Hamos must be dreaming if she thinks this is reform. Then again maybe she knows it’s a sham, but is nevertheless required to look good to get da money.

Anonymous said...

Some Thoughts on Alternatives Analysis:

The transit bosses and politicians like to perpetuate the myth that there is federal funding set aside for big expansion projects like Metra’s STAR Line and SouthEast Service and CTA’s Circle Line. There is not. These projects must compete nationally for federal funding and must achieve certain performance ratings through Alternatives Analysis, preliminary engineering and final design to be recommended for federal funding. Now that Denny Hassert is no longer Speaker of the House, these ratings are more important than ever. Metra has recently determined locally preferred alternatives for its UP-W and UP-NW upgrades, a key milestone in the quest for federal money. Interestingly, Metra is being very tight lipped about the status of the STAR Line and SouthEast Service - no locally preferred alternatives yet. Could it be these projects are not performing too well in the ratings process.

Alternatives Analysis is the federal government’s own method for determining project merit for federal investment and offers a measure of protection against commitment of federal resources to speculative projects with lowball costs and inflated ridership estimates that were very common in the early days of the New Starts program.

Alternatives Analysis is a part of an elaborate negotiated capital grant application. However, in the absence of any real system or corridor planning by the MPO, Alternatives Analysis often gets confused with planning. The Service Boards and the RTA perpetuate this notion. Alternatives Analysis does not rank local projects against other local projects using local criteria. This is something our MPO should do but does not. MPC published transportation investment criteria in August 2004 – urging the MPO and transportation agencies to evaluate regionally significant projects. Haven’t heard much more from MPC on the subject. Not that the criteria would be very useful in differentiating projects – they are too general.

Anonymous said...

I want to thank the first 11:39 for the astute analysis.

One thing on which I want to make an observation is the statement that Reilly says CTA will lose control, but there is nothing in SB 572 directed to the CTA (except the amendment to the Metropolitan Transit Act that the CTA Budget "be consistent with the goals and objectives adopted by the Regional Transportation Authority in the Strategic Plan," which the commentator indicates doesn't mean much).

It appears that the way the debate was structured in both the original HB 1841 and the Auditor General's report was that the various deficiencies resulting from the "sibling rivalry" between the service boards should be resolved by giving the RTA more power to coordinate. Many of these recommendations were directed to the RTA, rather than to the boards, and, of course, the RTA said that it would agree to take more power.

This came into focus in a series of postings by one anonymous person on Ask Carole, who said, "I count CTA agreement on 18 of 19 recommendations, the only exception was raising fares...," and later, "it looks to me like the Auditor had more to say about Metra's responses than CTA's." However, there was no direct recommendation that CTA stop competing with Pace in certain designated areas, a topic discussed in length in the Auditor General's report. Instead, the proposed legislative response was tinkering with section 2.12a.

Under the existing section 2.12a, there is a process for the board to mediate or arbitrate the dispute, but implementing the arbitration award takes 9 votes. Pace took its dispute over Harlem Ave. to the mediation step, but apparently not to the next. The original HB 1841 had a provision that the the Executive Director may intervene or arbitrate, but did not deal with the apparent inconsistency with 2.12a. The version of HB 2.12a in the first amendment to HB 1841 seemed pretty strong, but by the time it made it into SB 572, it would take 7 votes for the Executive Director to intervene--which may be a more onerous requirement than the current one, in that "access to the courthouse" is blocked without the 7 votes, whereas under current law the only impediment is that 9 directors won't support the arbitration decision.

I made a similar observation regarding 2.01a(i). It seems like all of the "reforms" are contingent on a majority or supermajority of the board deciding to do something first, but this RTA Board has proved that inertia is the only policy.

The second 11:39 is also on point. The politicians and CTA apologists keep saying "we don't want to leave money on the table," but it is questionable whether the money is even there. Another reason why I referred to "the consultants' relief act."

Anonymous said...

db--what Chicago area Republicans?

Anonymous said...

[I was anonymous #2]
It's very important that Section 4.02(b) should be looked at more closely. It says the RTA should be the primary grantee, but it allows for the Service Boards to also be grantees as long as they are part of a 5-year plan, etc., etc. It's that second part that has to go. Once there's a loop-hole, they'll walk right through it.

There should be NO option for any other agency to study, plan and execute these large projects. The Moderator and 11:39 are right, having 5-year capital plans and budget "oversight" isn't working today and neither will Strategic Plans, forced audits, Coordination Funds, blah-blah-blah, in the future.

There are A LOT of policy wonks and political types, who are smart, don't get me wrong, but who falsely believe that the competition between the Service Boards actually increases the amount of money coming to Illinois. I have heard them say this. For example: "Metra gets the STAR line; CTA gets the Circle Line. The region gets two projects, when it normally would have gotten one." This is common thinking in a lot of circles and I really think it's one of the core myths that is impeding any progressive development in funding transit. Why does Illinois consistently rank so low in bringing home Federal dollars (and it wasn't high when Hastert was Speaker!)? Because this region is balkanized, wasteful, and uncoordinated and we get beat out by those metro-regions that are not.