Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Predictions Please

One final post before focusing on departure: What are your predictions concerning (a) how SB 572 will fare and (b) the outcome of the current transit funding/governance imbroglio?

Let's refrain from snark and focus on the facts and reasonable inferences supporting your predictions.

In Transit

I'm soon in transit to a place with no Internet access and where my muscles will furnish the only means of locomotion. Postings will be sporadic and likely nonexistent until at least September 10th.

Post in the comments your news and commentary on the transit-related events as they unfold.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Finding A Path To Resolution

Disputes And Their Resolution

In my job I have some experience with dispute resolution. There are common characteristics to disputes. The parties tend to wear emotional blinders, convinced that their position is right and that the other side's position is unreasonable and irrational. They literally don't hear each other, talking past one another with argument after argument. Many times the conflict is complicated by status issues--one party will consider itself to be economically, socially and/or intellectually superior and not be shy about projecting their sense of entitlement. Not surprisingly, this patronizing attitude will rub the other party the wrong way and cause them to cling even more strongly to their position.

Yet, often it turns out that there is more common ground than what meets the eye. The challenge is finding a path for both parties to walk to get to that common ground and then build a settlement of the dispute on that ground. Many times this requires the parties to take bolds steps that would seem unthinkable to them when they entered the dispute resolution process. Seemingly intractable disputes do get worked out. This is the Midwest not the Mideast after all!

The Transit Funding Imbroglio

The current transit funding imbroglio strikes me as a textbook example of the kind of seemingly intractable dispute for which there is a common ground and creative solutions available to craft a resolution. That resolution will require everyone to get out of their comfort zones. But just as wars stimulate technological innovation, disputes such as this can sometime spark creative resolutions that exceed everyone's expectations.

The Moving Beyond Congestion group has worked hard and long putting together a transit funding and RTA governance package embodied in SB 572. That package has gotten the stamp of approval from the editorial boards. A coterie of advocacy groups and influential experts are speaking out in support of the bill. The Mayor of Chicago and the Chairman of the DuPage County Board, among other political figures, have spoken up in support. In other words, SB 572 has the stamp of approval from the local establishment.

Yet, as is the case is so many disputes, the proponents of SB 572 seem to have failed to listen and take into consideration important contrasting views. The Governor has been insistent that sales or individual income taxes will not go up on his watch. He has been equally insistent that the State tax structure is unfairly tilted in favor of the business community and against "working people." His spokesperson was recently quoted as saying that funding for transit should come from closing some of these corporate tax loopholes. Many may disagree with the Governor's position, but that position is neither irrational nor without precedent.

Even though they certainly knew that the Governor feels very passionately about no increases in sales taxes, the Moving Beyond Congestion effort has persisted in pushing for a significant sales tax increase in the region where two-thirds of the State's population lives. It is as if the proponents either failed to listen to the views of the Governor or just chose to dismiss the Governor's views as beneath serious consideration.

Using regional sales taxes to fund public transit is not, however, something mandated by a long lost Eleventh Commandment. Sales taxes for transit are criticized for two good reasons. First, sales taxes are regressive, which may explain why the Governor opposes sales tax increases. Second, sales taxes are not directed at the conduct--driving--that we want to switch over to transit use. Unlike alternatives such as gas taxes or tolls, sales taxes are too diffuse to incentivize people to take transit or reduce their driving.

Further, Governor signaled through a late and rejected amendment to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) bill (SB 1201) that the State should have a direct role in transportation and other kinds of infrastructure planning in this region. Yet, when the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents put together the RTA governance piece of SB 572 weeks later, they expanded the RTA Board but gave neither the Governor nor the State a role on that Board. This despite asking the State to increase its already substantial financial support for public transit in this region.

In short, we have a classic dispute. One side, apparently buoyed by a sense of entitlement, is pushing a transit funding and governance package that the other side has said is unacceptable.
The other side undoubtedly feels aggrieved and put upon by the first side's refusal to take its interests and priorities into account when putting together SB 572. This side likely views the current SB 572 publicly campaign as designed to shame and bludgeon the Governor to adopt policies starkly inconsistent with the Governor's clearly stated political agenda, and their backs get up. Add the fact that SB 572's most public advocate, Representative Hamos, is a House Democrat, a species not exactly in favor with the Governor's office at the moment if news reports are to be believed, and you have a difficult, rock-and-hard-place situation.

The Common Ground

What is striking is that both the proponents of SB 572 and the Governor have indicated that something must be done about the public transit situation in Northeastern Illinois. Sometimes the Governor has appeared to limit the scope of his remarks to the CTA, but he and his staff have signaled on other occasions that the Governor recognizes the need to do something about the challenges facing the RTA.

Such a shared goal is critical. Once the parties involved in a dispute like this recognize that they share roughly the same goal and will all pay a big price if they fail to resolve their differences, resolution is within reach. That not to say resolution is easy, just possible.

Outline Of A Transit Solution

The elements of a solution to an intractable dispute are often lying around in plain view. The parties locked in the dispute cannot see them for two reasons. One, they are too fixated on their grievances to be able to search for alternatives to their position. Second, often solutions require parties to step outside the box of what they think is possible. While such solutions may be impossible for either party to implement on their own, when brought together via a settlement they sometimes are able to surmount barriers each of them previously thought were insurmountable. Here is an outline of a path to resolution:

1. No sales tax: The Governor has made clear that he will veto a bill that contains a sales tax increase. Do the proponents of SB 572 really want to find out if they have the votes to override that veto, especially now that the House and Senate appear to be at odds in connection with the Governor's vetoes in the State operating budget?

The Governor has signaled that he would support transit funding that comes from closing corporate tax "loopholes." Here is one of his spokespersons quoted on public radio recently on the subject of transit funding:

Public transit boosters took months to hammer out a deal to provide money to keep trains and buses humming and please downstate lawmakers. The idea was to have the region itself pick up more of the tab. An Illinois Senate bill would hike sales taxes in six counties.

But Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich won't have it. The Office of Management and Budget's Justin DeJong says the governor wants someone else to pay.

DeJONG: This comes back to the fact that there are many corporations in Illinois who pay little or no taxes to the state. Businesses clearly benefit from having a strong public transit system, and it's only right that they help to support the system.

There is not much ambiguity here. The sales tax increase won't fly but the Governor is willing to consider other tax measures to raise money for transit.

The Governor already has signed one bill that originated in the State Senate closing such loopholes. Might there be other "loopholes" that could be closed via a Senate-initiated bill that would provide some additional operating revenue for the public transit system?

Given (a) the Governor's emphasis in his budget address on closing corporate income tax loopholes and (b) the recent statement by a spokesperson that this is where the transit funding solution should come from, it behooves the supporters of increased transit funding to find some plausible corporate tax loopholes that could provide a funding source for transit. The SB 572 proponents may not agree with this approach, but it is the best way to find a politically viable partial solution to the transit funding problem.

2. Time for User Fees: The Governor is also no stranger to using increased user fees to raise revenue. This was a key feature of his early budgets. He also supported increased tolls on the Illinois tollways to help fund improvements on that system.

There are two user fees that come to mind. First, the Moving Beyond Congestion Final Report identified vehicle registration fees as a potentially rich source of operating revenue. (Pg. 91) A $10 increase in vehicle registration fees in the RTA region would generate $50 million annually. Given the congestion-related burden each new car places on the regional transportation system, is doubling the current $78 per vehicle charge that unthinkable? That step alone would raise almost $400 million in new money annually.

Another option is expanding tolling to more roads in the region, a pure user fee. Rather than highly unpopular (but effective) cordon tolling (e.g., tolling access into the Chicago Loop) toll collection would be dispersed throughout the six-county region. The idea would be that those who use the major roads and bridges in our region would pay a user fee. The existing I-PASS system could be expanded and used for toll collection.

Let's assume that there are 70 billion vehicle miles traveled in this region, and that half of these miles are traveled on interstates and principal arterial streets. If tolls were set to generate just 2 cents of revenue per vehicle mile on interstate and principal arterials--a rate well below that on any toll road--$700 million would be generated annually.

Tolling appears to make everyone crazy locally, which is why the region is taking years to study its feasibility. Pitched as a user fee designed to fund transit and pay for some highway improvements (e.g., HOT lanes open to express buses), tolling might fly. The Governor was persuaded once to raise tolls to improve a portion of the region's transportation system. Maybe this example predisposes him in favor of a similar user fee to fund improvements to other important parts of the system.

3. The State joins the RTA Board. The RTA governance package should be amended to give the State of Illinois some active role on the new, improved RTA Board. Perhaps the Governor gets to pick the RTA Chairman with the advice and consent of the State Senate. Maybe the Governor and the 4 legislative leaders appoint the members of a reconstituted RTA Board. Maybe the Govenor and the legislative leaders each get to appoint one member to the Board. There are many possibilities.

The key is that the State and, specifically, the Governor, gets some substantial role on the RTA Board. It is frankly embarassing how the proponents of SB 572 constantly refer to the crucially important role of public transit to the State's economy and environment, how they want to substantially increase the State's financial support for transit, and yet they freeze out the State from any role on the governing board the public transit system.

Getting To A Transit Solution

Anyone who has gotten this far is probably sputtering. "Tolling, impossible." "I can't advocate for higher corporate taxes, there goes my funding base." "The Governor is completely unreasonable." "What don't the RTA and the House Democrats understand about the statement 'no new sales taxes'"? On and on.

Parties in disputes always go through the sputtering stage. It generally comes after they have a shared recognition of some common ground, when they first turn their attention to how to get to resolution. This is a good point to remind the various parties involved in this dispute of the consequences of continued deadlock and inaction.

In this case, further inaction means the shrinkage and deterioration of the region's public transit system. These developments, so contrary to the heavy investment in public transit in most other "world class" cities, will undercut Chicago's efforts to attract the Olympics. A diminished public transit system will be a roadblock in the City of Chicago's attempts to "green" the city. Congestion will increase in some corridors, as will air pollution. As the transportation system becomes less efficient the region becomes less competitive economically and less attractive from a quality of life perspective. Someone will be held responsible if the transit funding/governance package fails and that someone may be just about everyone in Springfield and in the city halls and county boards in this region.

Getting to agreement means recognizing the merit in the other side's position, understanding that both sides share some common ground, and being flexible, creative and brave when building solutions on that ground. It looks to me like the elements for a resolution of this matter lie around us. That solution might be vastly different from what anyone involved ever expected or thought possible. But better such a solution than continued impasse as a valuable public asset deteriorates around us.

House Mass Transit Committee Hearing Wednesday

The House Mass Transit Committee is meeting this Wednesday, August 29, to discuss SB 572. The hearing will be at 10 a.m. in the Thompson Center in room 16-503.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Busy News Day For Transit: What Does It Mean?

Operating Budget

The Governor has exercised his veto powers and squeezed about $463 million out of the operating budget approved by the Illinois House and the Senate. (Veto message here.) The approved State funding for transit escaped gubernatorial trimming. The amounts for paratransit ($54,251,555), reduced fare reimbursement ($37,318,100), the Public Transportation Fund match of the RTA sales taxes ($193,000) and RTA bonds ($135,300,000) have changed little since the Governor's budget proposal in the Spring.

It's A Rally!

Representative Julie Hamos has announced a transit funding rally for Tuesday, August 28, at 11:30 a.m. at the Thompson Center Plaza. Mayor Daley, DuPage County Board Chair Robert Schillerstrom, Representative Hamos and Representative Sid Mathias (House Mass Transit Committee Minority Spokesperson) are the featured rally rousers. (Note that Rep. Hamos' Mass Transit web page lists the date as August 27, which is wrong.)

At the time of this posting I did a quick search of the websites of the Moving Beyond Congestion project, the RTA, the service boards, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Illinois PIRG, CNT-Transit Future and Save Chicagoland Transit. There was no mention of the rally on any of their homepages. Consequently, it appears that the "rally" is intended to provide a backdrop of a small and photogenic crowd for what amounts to a press conference rather than mark the kick off any sort of mass movement in support of SB 572.

In light of this puzzling lack of publicity about the rally--by groups and service boards who to date haven't been shy about publicizing their support of SB 572--can someone shed light on the intended purpose of the "rally" and the target size for the crowd?

In light of the slim return thus far from all the speechifying, editorials and Op-Ed pieces, one wonders if the rally will bear the same relation to increased transit funding that a rain dance does to more rain.

Dour Dorval

The CTA's Executive Vice-President Dorval Carter, generally known for his pleasant disposition, was Mr. Gloom at today's RTA meeting, warning that the coming 2007 CTA "doomsday" cuts are but a preclude to a 2008 transit apocalypse unless more operating subsidies are found, and quickly:

CTA service would be completely decimated,” cut as much as 75%, CTA Executive Vice-president Dorval Carter said at the Regional Transportation Authority board meeting. “You’ll see CTA customers stranded as their transit options disappear.”

Without a new transit funding package from state lawmakers, the CTA could also raise cash fares next year to as high as $6 to plug what could be a $250-million hole in its operating budget, Mr. Carter said. Single-ride cash fares are currently $2.

The Mayor's new 21st Century Commission may point the way out of this mess. Keep your eye on this ball folks. From the Commission could come all sorts of interesting funding and operational ideas. The CTA is within the scope of the group's work.

SB 572 Moving Ahead?

The same article states that the House Mass Transit Committee will take up SB 572 on September 4th. There is no such meeting on the Committee's website, however. Note that the next round of Pace cuts go into effect on September 1st and the CTA has set September 16th as the dawning of its doomsday.

Kane 'Em

The good burghers of Kane County are still unhappy. Here's an overview of their grievance:

On Wednesday, Kane County Board Legislative Committee Chairman Bill Wyatt, R-Aurora, spoke out against a proposed House amendment that, he said, would cause the collar counties to pay for Chicago Transit Authority improvements. Metra and Pace – used most frequently by suburbanites – would not benefit as much, Wyatt said.

Committee member Gerry Jones, D-Aurora, said local funds raised by a proposed regional sales-tax increase would be filtered through the Regional Transportation Authority system rather than staying local.

Metra is what we want,” Jones said. “RTA is not.”

Kane County also doesn't like SB 572 because it (and McHenry County) would get less representation on the RTA Board than some of the other collar counties:

Wyatt also expressed concern in a proposed change to the RTA board of directors that would put 16 people on the board instead of the current 13.

The current 13-member board has three members picked by the collar counties. DuPage County picks one member and Kane, Lake, Will and McHenry counties work together to pick the other two.

The new board would increase the collar counties’ representation from three to five, but Wyatt was concerned about how those picks were distributed. Under the new plan, DuPage, Lake and Will would each pick one member and those three counties would work together to pick a fourth member. The fifth slot would be picked jointly by Kane and McHenry counties.

This is not enough representation for Kane and McHenry compared to the other collar counties, Wyatt said.

“They get 11⁄3 [picks], we get 1⁄2,” he said. “There’s no way we can accept a marginalized seat.”

As discussed previously (here , here, here and here), the many complaints from Kane County and McHenry County about the RTA are in inverse proportion to their contribution to the region's public transit system. After all, these counties pay relatively little into the RTA system through sales taxes. At the same time they burden the region with development patterns inhospitable to public transit. These development patterns make the cost of supplying transit in these counties prohibitively expensive. Exhibit A is the Metra's extension of service to Elburn, which cost several hundred million dollars yet serves relatively few people.

The proponents of SB 572 should amend the bill to exclude Kane and McHenry counties from the RTA Act. The revised bill would require Metra and Pace to provide service to those counties at cost, paid in advance. Kane and McHenry counties would no longer have to pay any RTA sales taxes and they and their elected representatives could figure out how to pay for whatever level of public transit service they desire.

It is time to call the bluff of these two collar counties. Of course, maybe they won't come back to the fold even after they understand just how much more it would cost them to retain the current Metra and Pace service levels. If they prefer to go their own way, then let's happily downsize the RTA to include only those counties that want to be a part of the RTA "family" and won't be a constant political and demographic drag on improving the public transit system in this region.

I know that full-funding grant agreements and the like may require Metra to continue running some service in Kane and McHenry counties. My guess is that there is sufficient room in those agreements to allow Metra to scale back its service in those counties to a level commensurate to what these two whiny counties are willing to pay for after arms-length bargaining with Metra.

* * *

What does it all mean? I agree with Jim Reilly's assessment.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Let's Go For Another Spin

At its November 2006 meeting the RTA Board approved the retention of Resolute Consulting LLC " to manage and implement the community outreach and public relations element" of the Moving Beyond Congestion effort. The contract amount was $789,862.

On the agenda for the August 23d meeting of the RTA Board is a resolution extending Resolute Consulting's contract. The agenda unhelpfully does not specify either the length or amount of the extension.

What's your assessment of the "community outreach and public relations" work done on behalf of the Moving Beyond Congestion effort by Resolute Consulting?

I must confess that when I saw that the posted information about the public hearings about the preliminary Moving Beyond Congestion plan (remember those?) contained driving directions but no information on how to travel to the hearings by transit I formed a quite negative impression. (Post here.) But who's perfect?

New California Budget Cuts Transit--A Preview?

After many weeks of wrangling the California legislature has approved a FY 2008 budget.

The budget increases funding for education but cuts money for transit. Here is a excerpt from an article describing the budget deal:

The fiscal 2007-08 budget, considered by most a victory for conservatives because of its austerity, provides a record reserve of $3.5 billion, pays off $2.5 billion in bond debt early and largely satisfies the needs of all major state services, including education, public safety, and health and welfare programs.

It also transfers $1.3 billion from public transportation programs to general fund spending while delaying a cost-of-living increase for the disabled.

Here's more from the same article:

Public transportation also lost in the budget battle - $1.3 billion in gasoline tax money was siphoned away from transportation programs and projects and put into the general fund to help pay for schools, public health and other programs.

In the past, Bay Area leaders worried that the transfer could delay the seismic retrofit of BART's Transbay Tube, but officials said the impact is not clear.
Linton Johnson, spokesman for BART, said officials are still evaluating how the cut will affect the agency.

"At first blush, it does not look as devastating as we thought it might," he said. "We still need to crunch the numbers, but clearly this is not good news overall for public transportation."

Might California's transfer of money from transit to fund other priorities like education turn out to be a model for Illinois? Governor Blagojevich, after all, reportedly is a fan of Governor Schwarzenegger.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What I Am Reading These Days

-- An overview of the five winning Urban Partnership Program entries, with pictures and links to the agreements between the feds and the locals.

-- A readable, well-documented discussion of privatization in the public transit sector. The RTA Act as written appears to provide a method for the region to tap into private sector transportation resources to provide service that it is not economical for the current public transit providers to supply. This avenue has not been explored by the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents or anyone else as a way of extending the limited operating funds available to public transit providers in this region. We'll explore in a later post.

-- A comparative survey (Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Chicago) of how supportive cities are to travel by non-auto means of travel--transit, bicycling and walking.

-- A new Transportation Research Board report on transit oriented development commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration. It takes almost 150 well stuffed pages to conclude that dense, heavily mixed-used development near transit stations can increase transit usage and reduce auto dependence. The positive effects of TOD are magnified when parking is constrained physically and/or through price. The study also supports the common sense conclusion that transit ridership levels are highest nearest a transit station and ridership drops off the farther the home or job site is from the station.

What's on your reading list?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Who Will Wear The Suit If SB 572 Fails?

The Bombast

In today's Capitol Fax Blog, Rich Miller excoriates Metra board members and Metra's Executive Director, Phil Pagano, for venting at a recent board meeting at the lack of progress in Springfield on the the SB 572 transit funding package. (Coverage of that board meeting here, here and here.)

This excerpt from the Daily Herald gives you a sense of that meeting:

The frustration of Metra officials, who have been waiting for action on the measure by lawmakers for months, spilled out at the board meeting Friday in an hourlong, round-robin rant.

Metra Director Phil Pagano, visibly angered at times, lamented the attention lavished on the CTA over its threatened fare hikes and service cuts while also blasting lawmakers who believe Metra riders can afford drastic fare hikes.

“I’m sick and tired - in blunt language - of people thinking our ridership is lily white making $250,000 a year,” he said at the public meeting. “We provide a very wide range of service for a wide range of people.”

On the CTA, he snapped, “I’m getting really tired of the CTA and their service cuts. This isn’t a one-agency issue.”

On the heels of the Metra board meeting a McHenry County group entitled the McHenry County Better Roads Coalition held a spirited rally in Algonquin. (Here, here and here.) The rally featured plenty of speeches and placards attacking the Governor for failing to fund McHenry County road improvements. Some of the loudest voices at the rally belonged to Republican public officials, which is rather ironic since it has been Illinois Republicans who have repeatedly torpedoed transportation capital bills, including a major capital construction bill less than two weeks ago.

Could this highly publicizing fingerpointing by Metra and McHenry County bigwigs be the start of a concerted effort by these folks and their allies to put the jacket of public transit fare increases and service cuts and increasing highway congestion on the Governor and the Democratic leaders in the General Assembly if SB 572 fails to pass? Are these folks telegraphing their belief that SB 572 is unlikely to pass and that it is time to secure a good position for when the blame game begins?

Rich Miller points the finger back at Metra and its suburban Republican political base:

Whining about the lack of publicity or the inattention by Springfield is not Metra’s answer. Their problem is that too many Republicans, particularly in the House, bought into an “easy fix” for transit that was based on gaming expansion. That package is now on life support. It’s up to Metra, PACE and the RTA to convince those recalcitrant suburban legislators - most of them Republicans - to get back on board the negotiated agreement for a sales tax hike which fell apart when the easy gaming money was dangled in front of them.

Let's look at the data we have to see if he is on the mark.

The Numbers

By my rough calculations there are 78 State representatives who have districts that include a significant part of the six-county RTA region. Twenty-eight are Republican and 50 are Democrats.

Four of the 28 Republicans (14%) have signed on as sponsors of SB 572. The four Republican sponsors are as follows:

Suzanne Bassi (54th District--Northwest Cook County--District office in Palatine)
Elizabeth Coulson (17th District--Northern Cook County--District office in Glenview)
Mike Fortner (95th District--Western DuPage County and a bit of Kane County--District office in West Chicago)
Sid Mathias (53d District--Northwest Cook County and smidgen of Lake County--District office in Arlington Heights)

Note that with the exception of Representative Fortner not a single Republican representative from the collar counties (Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage and Will) has signed on as a sponsor of SB 572.

Nineteen of the 50 Democrats (48%) have signed on as sponsors. One can only speculate why more have not signed on as sponsors. In all, only 23 of the 78 representatives from this region (28%) are listed as SB 572 sponsors.

In the Senate, there are 28 Democrats and 7 Republicans from the six-county RTA region. None of the Republican senators have signed on as a sponsor of SB 572. Just four of the Democrats (14%) have signed on as sponsors. This means that just four of 35 senators in the region (11%) are sponsors of SB 572.

Bill sponsorship may mean little or nothing for most bills. In a major bill like SB 572, however, the level of sponsorship may be a more accurate indication of the support for the bill in the legislature. After all, elected officials in this region likely have heard plenty from their constituents, transit interest groups, and editorial boards concerning the merits of SB 572. It pains one to recall that the Moving Beyond Congestion effort has been in high gear for the past year or so. The House Mass Transit Committee has spent a significant amount of time on transit funding/governance issues over the past several years. If an elected official strongly supported SB 572, or at least wanted the repeated visits from lobbyists on the issue to cease, then presumably they would have jumped on the sponsorship bandwagon long ago.

If and when it comes time to "wear the jacket" for the failure of SB 572, it looks like there had better be plenty of cloth, both red and blue, to make all the appropriate garments.

Representative Hamos Honked Off

Metra officials are not the only public servants upset at the lack of action on SB 572. Representative Julie Hamos is quoted on public radio "blam[ing] party leaders for blocking a vote on a transit bill." Here is a transcript of her statement and commentary from the reporter:

HAMOS: There's public mudslinging, they're fighting with themselves and it's so sick that they se [sic] beyond themselves to see that there are 2 million rides a day that will be impacted by our actions in Springfield.

Hamos says she has to votes to pass the bill. Her proposal would help to fund local transit by increasing sales and real estate transfer taxes.

Note that Representative Hamos repeats what she posted in this blog, namely, that she has enough votes to pass SB 572.

Does Representative Hamos' public fingering of the leadership of her own party as the reason that SB 572 is stalled affect the prospects that the bill will pass?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

GAO Study, Capital Investment Decisions And SB 572

GAO Study

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has released a study (GAO-07-920) entitled "Surface Transportation: Strategies are Available for Making Existing Road Infrastructure Perform Better." I am sure that you will find the study to be a bracing alternative to a fluffy romance or gritty detective novel for poolside reading.

The study sets out the familiar story of how traffic congestion has worsened as vehicle miles traveled have increased at a much faster rate over the past 25 years than road capacity (2.7% versus 0.2% annually in 1980-2005 period). It concludes that the supply of road capacity is likely to remain constrained due to factors such as high construction costs, funding limits, and public resistance to highway expansion in many areas.

A significant part of the study is devoted to examining a variety of congestion mitigation techniques. These include roadway management techniques such as clearing accidents promptly, better traveler information signs, and improved traffic signal coordination. Telework policies and flexible work hours help flatten demand for road capacity. High occupancy toll lanes and other forms of road tolling help manage demand by forcing drivers to absorb some of the external costs--e.g., increased congestion and air pollution--that they generate when they drive.

The study cites a variety of successful initiatives from around the country. Notably, Illinois merits not a single mention as one of the innovators. The study also treats road pricing as well-accepted tool of congestion management, just underscoring the question why it is taking our local transportation team until 2010 just to study the "feasibility" of congestion pricing.

What is especially interesting about the study for current purposes is its discussion concerning "the final factor inhibiting efficient use of the road network . . . the ability to identify--and put in place--infrastructure investments that are most likely to be efficiently used." The study points to two factors in this regard:

Funding is compartmentalized by transportation mode. Many transportation experts maintain--and our past work tends to confirm--that the current structure of funding at the federal and state level is highly compartmentalized, or stove-piped. Funding is often tied to certain program or types of projects, such as highways or transit, and it has also been increasingly designated for local uses. This structure provide state, regional and local agencies with little incentive to systematically compare trade-offs between investment alternatives across different nodes of transportation.


Economic analysis does not drive decisions. Decisions about what projects to fund are seldom subjected to rigorous economic analysis. Our prior work found that economic analysis, such as benefits and costs analysis, is not systematically used in the decision-making process. The limited extent to which formal economic analysis is systematically used makes it difficult for decision makers to assure that they are funding projects that best ensure the efficient use of scarce resources.

Sound familiar?

Local Implications

These obstacles certainly loom large locally. Unless I am missing something, transportation planning and funding is highly compartmentalized in this region. IDOT, the RTA, the three service boards, CDOT, the Toll Authority, and a variety of local and county transportation organizations all have their own sets of planners and their own capital funding streams.

Does anyone at the state or regional level systematically compare the costs and benefits of various transportation capital investments. Does Metra's investment in the Johnsburg extension, for example, deliver more transit trips (or passenger miles) per million dollars of investment than the CTA's Circle Line? Will ridding the Blue Line of slow zones bring more customers back to transit than a BRT line running through DuPage County? Is an extra lane of I-55 in the Joliet region a better investment than the double-tracking of Metra's Antioch line?

CMAP and before that CATS, our region's MPO, is the logical candidate to do this kind of cross-modal, cross-agency, cross-jurisdiction analysis. The 2030 plan for the region, however, simply lists the capital projects advanced by the various agencies. It is a mystery how the projects made the cut for the 2030 list and there is no prioritization of those that make the list.

SB 572 To The Rescue?

SB 572 does little or nothing to address the problem of institutional "stove-piping" that the GAO identified as once of the key obstacles to maximizing the benefit of transportation investments.

SB 572 does not change the existing institutional environment for transportation in the region. IDOT and the Toll Authority will continue to plug away on the highway side. RTA and the service boards will chug away on the transit side. The local highway agencies will continue doing what they are doing. There are enough stovepipes here to outfit a Kenmore appliance factory.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning ("CMAP") might be the natural agency to pull all prospective projects together and do comparative analyses among them. SB 1201, which is on the Governor's desk for signature, has some promising elements. For example, section 45 of the Act, 70 ILCS 1707/45, directs CMAP to develop a regional comprehensive plan every five years. That plan is to include "a listing of proposed public investment priorities in transportation and other public facilities and utilities of regional significance," 70 ILCS 1707/45(d), and "the criteria and procedures proposed for evaluating and ranking projects in the Plan and for the allocation of transportation funds," 70 ILCS 1707/45(e). Further, 70 ILCS 1707/60(b) states that "it is the intent of this Act that the transportation planning and investment decision-making process be fully integrated into the regional planning process."

SB 1201 may be doomed to be vetoed because it provides for not a single State of Illinois representative on the CMAP Board. 70 ILCS 1707/15(c). This is the oddest of omissions since IDOT remains a central figure in the region's transportation system. Even if the Governor signs off on SB 1201, the State's lack of representation likely will undercut CMAP's effectiveness in developing a consensus among the many governmental parties as to which transportation investments should have priority.

The New RTA Strategic Plan

SB 572 does add a five-year strategic plan requirement to the RTA Act that might result in the kind of cost/benefit analyzes among transit projects that the GAO deemed useful. Section 2.01a(c) provides that "the Strategic Plan shall establish the process and criteria by which proposals for capital improvements by a Service Board or transportation agency will be evaluated by the Authority for inclusion in the Five-Year Capital Program."

The enumerated criteria do not include, however, any requirement of cross-modal or cross-service board cost/benefit analyses. The closest is subsection (i), which says that one of the evaluation criteria may be for "allocating funds among maintenance, enhancement and expansion projects."

Nor is the RTA required to conform its five-year strategic plan with CMAP's five-year plan. While the RTA must rely upon demographic and other such data generated by CMAP, it is only required to consult with CMAP regarding the consistency of the RTA plan with the CMAP plan. Thus, it appears that transit investment decisions will continue to be made without the benefit of the kind of comparative cost/benefit analysis across transportation modes that the GAO recommends.

Section 2.01a(i) has gotten some attention as the proposed cure for the problem of lack of coordination, indeed, outright competition, between the service boards with respect to capital investments. Section 2.01a(i) provides that upon a 12 vote supermajority of the revamped 16 member RTA board the RTA will be given responsibility for do the alternatives analysis and the preliminary environmental analysis work for transportation projects larger than $25 million where two or more service boards are potential service providers.

A big problem with this provision is the fact that it requires a supermajority vote of the RTA Board. For example, let's say hypothetically that the collar counties really, really want a splashy new Metra rail line that is both expensive to build and operate and unlikely to generate all that much ridership. Let's also assume that Pace express bus and bus rapid transit could do the same job more cheaply, but isn't favored by the collar county public officials.

I know this could never happen, which is why I said "hypothetically." Here we have a situation where two service boards could do the project but one service board's option is strongly favored by the locals. The five collar county representatives on the RTA Board could block the RTA from assuming responsibility for the alternatives analysis by voting no.

Now, let's assume that the CTA proposed a light rail line supported by a prominent local politician but largely duplicative of its existing rail and bus service. Again, I'm sure it will never happen. Yet, in the unlikely event that it does, section 2.01a(i) likely doesn't apply in the first place because neither Metra nor Pace are "potential service providers" in the corridor. And, as in the first example, the five City of Chicago members on the RTA Board could block the RTA from taking over the alternatives analysis for the project, knowing that a hard look likely would doom the project.

Section 2.01a(i) also does not directly empower the RTA to do comparative cross/benefit analyzes among proposed projects throughout the region. There is nothing that requires the RTA to do a cost/benefit comparison between, for example, the STAR Line and the Circle Line. Even if RTA's beefed up planning staff does such an analysis there is nothing that requires the RTA to tailor the service board capital plans so that they conform to the results of this kind of comparative cost/benefit analysis.

A Cost/Benefit Analysis Directive

Maybe the drafters of SB 572 should take a cue from the GAO Study and say directly in an amendment to the RTA Act:

The RTA shall subject all proposed capital investments over $25 million by the RTA and the service boards to a comparative cost-benefit analysis. It shall approve five-year capital plans containing only those projects that it reasonably determines provides the most public benefit for the region in terms of increasing public transit ridership, reducing reliance on the private automobile for travel in the region and encouraging transit-oriented development. The RTA shall not approve any proposed project for inclusion in a five-year capital plan unless CMAP has also approved the inclusion of the project in its five-year strategic plan after conducting a similar cost-benefit analysis of the transit project against other proposed transportation projects for the region.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Let's Look On The Bright Side

This blog and its coterie of commentators has been all too critical. I've been railing on the region's "transportation team." Others have been excoriating our elected officials. And still others persist in seeing this blog as the instrument of Satan, namely, the Metropolitan Planning Council. Around us swirls a nasty political battle that may well doom the public transit funding/RTA reform package that is stuck in Springfield.

A sweet drive last night from Busse Woods to downtown Chicago with no congestion related interruptions and a series of quick trips today on the CTA made me realize that in the midst of predictions of doomsday the region's transportation system does work well much of the time.

So, this blog entry is dedicated to recognizing and celebrating what and who works well in the region's transportation system:

1. Which transportation agency in the region performs the best?

2. What city or municipality best practices transit-oriented development?

3. Which person has done the most to improve the region's transportation system over the past decade?

4. Which non-governmental agency has done the most to improve the region's transportation system over the past decade?

5. If we consolidated IDOT District One, the Illinois Toll Authority and the RTA into one regional mobility superagency who in the region would do best in running that agency?

6. Who is the most creative transportation professional in the region?

7. What part(s) of our region's transportation system functions most effectively?

Let's think positive and comment accordingly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summertime Blues

All weekend and into this week the new, improved version of SB 572, the transit funding and RTA reform package, sat on a table practically screaming "read me." It was too nice outside to do that, even tonight, when I was outside on the water in the rain. Summer is slipping away and it is important to work on our biking and walking skills. After all, come September 16th we may be needing those skills!

Ok, grit teeth. It's time to starting mining this new bill. Here are two nuggets.

Metra Bonding Authority

The bill gives Metra (but not Pace) the authority to issue bonds (pgs. 142-44). Metra can have up to $1 billion in debt outstanding and use the proceeds for a variety of purposes. Construction of a new Metra headquarters, however, is expressly barred.

A 75% supermajority of the RTA board must authorize Metra's issuance of debt. Note that the bill leaves untouched the CTA's power to issue debt without the RTA's specific authorization (70 ILCS 3605/12). Of course, as a practical matter the RTA can block the CTA's issuance of debt by rejecting the CTA operating budgets and/or capital plans that assume that the CTA will issue debt.

Metra has long sought the power to issue debt. Its dreams will come true if SB 572 is enacted. Johnsburg Ho! (Note the estimated $351 million in capital investment for the Johnsburg project will yield 4100 new riders (pg. 21 of 27.) Since Johnsburg is located in the outer reaches of this region, each new ride generated will soak up at least several dollars of operating subsidies. In essence, the region will be investing in the kind of transit ridership that will drain the most tax revenue per trip.)

RTA's Possible Role In The CTA's Pension/Healthcare Mess

SB 572 makes no substantive changes to section 28a of the CTA's authorizing statute (the Metropolitan Transit Authority Act), 70 ILCS 3605/28a, except to reflect the new supermajority requirement for RTA board approval of certain actions (from 9 votes out of 13 board members to 12 votes out of 16 members.). Section 28a(4) reads in relevant part as follows:

(4) Within 30 days of the signing of any such collective bargaining agreement, the [CTA] Board shall determine the costs of each provision of the agreement, prepare an amended budget incorporating the costs of the agreement, and present the amended budget to the Board of the Regional Transportation Authority for its approval under Section 4.11 of the Regional Transportation Act. The Board of the Regional Transportation Authority may approve the amended budget by an affirmative vote of two‑thirds of its then Directors. If the budget is not approved by the Board of the Regional Transportation Authority, the agreement may be reopened and its terms may be renegotiated. Any amended budget which may be prepared following renegotiation shall be presented to the Board of the Regional Transportation Authority for its approval in like manner.

In other words, during the same period that the CTA was entering into collective bargaining agreements that resulted in chronically underfunded pension and health care plans, the RTA may have had the power to have rejected those contracts as imprudent. This might have forced the CTA and its unions to go back to the bargaining table, giving the CTA another chance to have obtained an agreement that provided adequate funding for its pension and health care plans. At a minimum, the CTA could have used the RTA's threat of a veto of the revised budget necessary to reflect a proposed collective bargaining unit to obtain improved terms.

The CTA's recent labor agreements with its largest unions, however, were not negotiated at the bargaining table; rather, they were imposed through arbitration awards. Does anyone know if section 28a(4) applies in the event that a CTA labor agreement comes through an arbitration award rather than at the bargaining table? Did section 28a(4) play any role in the CTA labor agreements that the Auditor General found precipitated the pension and healthcare funding crises?

Sitting On The Sideline Collecting Splinters

Today the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the five finalists for its Urban Partnership Program grants. The grants range from $62.9 million to $354 million and average about $170 million

As readers of this blog know all too well (e.g., here, here and here) this region's team of transportation professionals submitted an application for a Program grant. The DOT rejected that application in the first round because it was made up of preliminary concepts rather than a credible plan that satisfied the DOT's requirements, namely a plan that involved some form of highway pricing and would be rolled out in the next couple of years.

Consequently, we can only watch from the sidelines while five other cities with whom the Chicago region competes for business, population, and status tap into millions of new dollars to improve their transportation systems.

The winners are. . .

Florida Department of Transportation: $62.9 million to convert I-95 carpool lanes from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale to tolled lanes. The two tolled lanes in each direction will be dynamically priced to keep traffic moving at a speed of at least 50 miles an hour. Buses, vanpools, motorcycles and registered carpools will be able to use the toll lanes free of charge. The project also includes a regional express bus service that will take advantage of the constant travel speeds in the tolled lanes.

Minneapolis: $133.3 million for high occupancy toll lanes and dynamically priced shoulder lanes for use during rush hour along I-35W. The project also includes accelerated development of a bus rapid transit line, more dedicated bus lanes in downtown Minneapolis, and a flex-time/telecommuting program.

New York: $354.5 million to help implement Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan for Manhattan. $214 million of this money is going to be used to buy new buses, implement bus rapid transit routes, and for other improvements to the public transit system. The congestion charge will yield at least least several hundred million of dollars in new money for transportation projects annually.

San Francisco: $158.7 million for a package of congestion pricing and other improvements. Plan calls for congestion pricing on approach to Golden Gate Bridge and in the downtown. Other features include bus-priority lanes and intersection controls on major thoroughfares, a real-time parking space availability information system covering city garages, variable pricing for street parking in the downtown, and a new payment card that will allow users to pay for parking, tolls and other transit costs from one account.

Seattle: $138.7 million to implement tolling on the Highway 520 floating bridge. In addition to paying for tolling equipment, a substantial portion of the grant money will be used to purchase new buses for the local transit agency.

All of the proposals have a strong highway pricing component. All of them, most notably New York, San Francisco and Seattle, have strong transit components. There are some very creative ideas in the mix, such as San Francisco's payment card that will allow users to pay for highway and public transit using a single card and account (shades of our region's universal fare card, which came and went yet again this legislative session, with fanfare each time). Florida nicely leverages the steady traffic flow from variably priced toll lanes to improve regional bus service. New York and San Francisco are going to implement bus rapid transit in a congested urban environment akin to the denser areas of Chicago.

This region had all the elements for a winning application. We high levels of traffic congestion. We have both existing toll highways and highways like the Dan Ryan and Kennedy (express lanes) and Stevenson (shoulder lanes) that could easily be tolled. Variable tolling lanes could provide a steady operating operating environment for express buses and van pools throughout the region. The three million I-PASSes in circulation offer a built-in fare collection system. We certainly have transit agencies that could use a fleet of new buses and a big piece of the new revenue generated from the expanded road pricing system.

Yet, the region's transportation team and, to be fair, their politician clients, blew it when it came to the Urban Partnership Program. But never fear. According to the most recent report of the DOT's Value Pricing Program, while other urban regions are implementing a variety of creative transportation strategies that feature highway pricing and increased support for public transit, this region's transportation team is embarked on a study of congestion pricing that is scheduled to be completed in 2010.

Here's the description of what this region is doing instead of implementing congestion pricing initiatives like our urban peers:

The new project will evaluate the feasibility of reducing bottlenecks through a system of priced queue jumps and will assess resulting changes in travel times and delays on the region's expressways. The study will also assess the feasibility of better utilizing electronic toll collection and variable pricing mechanisms to reduce traffic congestion and access the potential of implementing pricing to increase the use of alternate travel modes and enhance the capacity on the region's expressway system. This project could lead to the demonstration of innovative pricing mechanisms to reduce congestion, improve goods movement, and increase the use of alternative transportation modes.

With new congestion pricing projects springing up around the country and the world like mushrooms and other U.S. cities moving from grant application to implementation in the course of 1-2 years is it really necessary for this region to take three years to "assess the feasibility" of congestion pricing that "could lead" to a "demonstration" of congestion pricing sometime after 2010? Haven't London, Stockholm, Singapore, San Diego and now the five winners of the Urban Partnership grants shown that road pricing is "feasible."

You would think that having been beaten badly in the Urban Partnership contest the local team would have regrouped and redoubled their efforts to help this region catch up to its competitor urban regions when it comes to transportation. Yet, here is what the FHWA reports on our transportation team's effort on the above-mentioned congestion pricing feasibility study:

April - June 2007 Update: The project was awarded funds in April 2007. The scope of work was revised and a project kick off meeting will be scheduled soon.

Three months and not even a kick off meeting? From reading the Moving Beyond Congestion materials we all thought this region was in a state of "crisis" when it comes to congestion and public transit funding. Yet, it takes the same transportation team over three months to hold a kick off meeting on a transportation tool--congestion pricing--that not only has the cachet of being the cool transportation technique of the moment but also may just work.

Our region's transportation team's leisurely response to a "crisis" of its own declaration is puzzling and disturbing. I apologize to readers for being so cranky about this, but our region's loss of an Urban Partnership Program grant seems emblematic of a major problem with the caliber of our region's team of transportation professionals. If our transportation professionals are so skittish and/or seemingly uninterested in congestion pricing then it is not surprising that their political clients and the public at large are too. That is a shame, because congestion pricing might have been a key element of a transit funding and reform package in this region, just as it has been in London, Stockholm and now five U.S. cites and presumably more urban regions between now and 2010, when this region completes its study of the "feasibility" of congestion pricing.

Go team!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Representative Hamos' Assessment Of Prospects For Transit Package

In case you missed it, Representative Julie Hamos, the moving force behind the multi-year effort that has culminated in SB 572, posted her assessment of the political prospects for the transit funding/RTA reform package. Responding to an assertion in a previous post that the bill has the support of only 50 House members she stated:

Here's the political landscape in Springfield: Two weeks ago we had 3/5ths vote in both chambers to pass this bill, and to override a possible gubernatorial veto (that's 71 votes, not 50). Legislators were willing to support the comprehensive approach contained in SB 572, including funding for downstate transit. However, currently the Republican leaders are withholding votes in order to combine transit funding with funding for a major capital infrastructure bond program. Hopefully we will get both done by the end of the month.

Thanks for sharing your assessment.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Special Session on RTA Issues Sunday Afternoon

Per the Capitol Fax Blog:

Gov. Blagojevich has called yet another special session for Sunday at 5:15 pm. This one, which nobody will probably show up for either, has to do with the RTA. As usual, the governor has not introduced or pointed to any legislation that the General Assembly is supposed to consider.

The calendar entry for this special session is not informative.

Please post any information you may have about the special session in the comments. Looks like it will be another special session non-starter.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pork, Priorities And Prospects

The operating budget approved by the State House and Senate today (HB 3866) has no surprises when it comes to transit funding. The amounts are the same amounts contained in yesterday's House bill and summarized here.

The budget contains several hundred pages of "member initiatives," often derided, sometimes deservedly so, as "pork." As the Governor opined:

Blagojevich also criticized the number of pork-barrel projects.

"It's got so much pork in it that if you were to hold the budget document itself, you'd probably be unable to hold it because it's so greasy," Blagojevich said.

(I guess what you can't hold you can't sign.)

These member initiatives shed light on one or more of the following: (1) the priorities of the legislators; (2) the priorities of their constituents; and (3) the relative strength of the effort made by those eligible for the earmarks to persuade the legislators to favor them with earmarks.

How does public transit--and by extension the public transit members of the region's transportation team--fare with respect to the member initiatives? Not well, I'm afraid.

I did a variety of key word searches of the budget bill using terms like "transit," "bus," "train," and the names of the service boards. Here is what I found:

-- In the City of the Chicago there was a grand total of one member initiative clearly identified for public transit. That was a $100,000 grant for security purposes at the Jefferson Park station.

-- In contrast, both the Park District, the Chicago Board of Education and CDOT got significantly more earmarks and much more money from legislative earmarks.

-- In the suburbs there were two clearly identified transit projects in Roselle ($50,000) and LaGrange ($150,000). Several pedestrian underpass earmarks might be related to rail stations or train lines, but that is just speculation. There were also four suburban earmarks for senior transport and dial-a-ride services, totalling less than $100,000.

-- These figures were dwarfed by the number of suburban earmarks devoted to road projects. I quickly counted roughly 50 projects totaling over $10 million and there likely are more.

-- The transit earmarks are even dwarfed by the earmarks for bike paths. I found nine earmarks for bike trails in the region totaling over $1 million.

I stress that this was a quick and dirty analysis. The results are indicative only.

You would think that in a time when operating and capital funds for public transit are especially tight, the RTA and the service boards would have a relatively easy time making their case and getting a substantial number and amount of earmarks. What does their lack of success say about:

-- the political support for public transit relative to other needs such as education, parks and highways;

-- the public's support for public transit relative to other needs such as education, parks and highways;

-- the quality (and quantity) of the effort made by the RTA and the service boards to get earmarks from the legislators; and

-- the prospects for SB 572?

Doubters Beware: SB 572 Reemerges

Representative Julie Hamos has filed Amendment #3 to SB 572. This is billed as the real deal, containing all of the pension and governance provisions that thus far have been shrouded in secrecy.

Amendment #3

Bill Summary

Word is that currently there are at best 50 votes in the Illinois House for the SB 572 package. Speaker Madigan, however, has indicated that he is going to push forward with the package:

The Speaker was asked, by State Representative Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), about a mass transit bailout. He said he would take a few days off and then work on rounding up the votes for Hamos' proposed sales tax increase in Chicago and the collar counties to bail out the financially strapped transit agency.

There is more on Speaker Madigan's position in the comments to the previous post as well as a summary of some key bill provisions. (Thanks posters.)

There are some interesting little nuggets in Amendment #3 that will get summarized in a later post.

Update on Budget and Transit Funding

You can read the newspapers and the CapitalFax Blog for all the details. Briefly, the Senate approved the operating budget (HB 3860) by a 52-5 margin and sent it back to the House for final approval today.

The Senate narrowly rejected a capital construction program. It appears that Republicans failed to come through in suppport of that program as may have been promised, prompting this outburst by Senator Emil Jones:

Sen. Watson," Jones bellowed, "I am through meeting. My patience has worn thin because there's not one sincere bone in your body. You're not interested in doing anything about the roads. You aren't interested in doing anything about the bridges, and you don't give a damn about whether our schools across the state of Illinois have a capital bill.

(I thought the Senate Dems had a veto-proof majority, so maybe Senator Jones needs to look within his own ranks.)

Work is still ongoing on a capital plan funded by a Chicago casino. SB 572, the transit funding and RTA "reform" bill, remains in the mix. Here is what seems to be a well-informed view by a poster to the previous blog entry:

It was always the plan that SB 572 would be standalone legislation. Weeks ago it was thought the bill would be called on its own. But of course it will only pass in the context of a larger deal. If that deal happens it will include capital and transit operating, basically a trade between Republicans and Chicago dems. Whether the operating comes from the casino or from sales tax remains to be seem. And finally, Madigan is fully behind and intends to get 572 passed. He is a cunning, strategic man who usually gets what he wants.

It's not over yet.

Representataive Julie Hamos, who could have been the poster for all we know, has a similar view:

The budget negotiations left many other major issues dangling, including funding for the Chicago Transit Authority and other regional transit agencies.

After months of negotiations, Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) introduced legislation to help fund mass transit by imposing a quarter-cent sales tax in Cook and the five collar counties and another quarter-cent bump in the collar counties. Her proposal would authorize the city to impose a higher real estate transfer tax to help underwrite CTA expenses.

She predicted the issue could be worked out over the next few weeks—and before fare hikes and transit cuts are imposed in September—during negotiations over a construction program and possibly the governor's health-care package.

I won't be in a position to post until this evening so use the comments to add news items.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Budget Bill And The Prospects For SB 572

A State operating budget (HB 3860) has been approved by the Illinois House and sent to the Senate. HB 3860 has the following appropriations for public transit in this region (pgs. 662-663 of 1395):

$37,318,100 -- Reduced fare reimbursement
$54,251,555 -- Paratransit
$193,000,000 -- Public Transportation Fund
$40,000,000 -- SCIP bonds
$95,300,000 -- Additional Financial Assistance

These amounts are identical to the amounts in the Governor's proposed budget and almost identical to the amounts in the one-month temporary budget adopted in late June.

The budget does not include any authorization for an RTA sales tax increase. Nor does it authorize the City of Chicago to increase its real estate transfer tax to provide a source of operating funds for the CTA. Note: Does anyone know if the General Assembly must authorize Chicago to increase its real estate transfer tax or can the City exercise its home rule powers and do it on its own?

The received wisdom is that the Senate will approve the budget sometime tonight. The Governor has signaled his disapproval of the budget and may veto the bill:

Blagojevich's office criticized the legislation even before the voting started, citing the lack of help for the CTA and contending the budget is a billion dollars out of balance. Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said the budget "has a lot of problems," including a failure to address the governor's desire to expand health care and commit to a multibillion construction program.

Note that this statement mentions help for the CTA only. The Governor to my knowledge has never embraced a larger transit funding package that includes Pace and Metra.

SB 572, the RTA funding and "reform" package put together by Representative Hamos after literally years of painstaking preparation continues to be dead in the water. If the Governor opposes SB 572 (a) because it relies on an increase in sales taxes and, perhaps, (b) because it funds more than just the CTA, what are the bill's chances once an operating budget has been approved?

The hope of the proponents of SB 572 was that the bill had a chance of garnering a veto-proof majority if it was tucked into a massive budget bill that had something--e.g., funded member initiatives--for everyone. If Representative Hamos and the SB 572 supporters were not successful in hitching SB 572 to the HB 3860 wagon, how successful can they be with SB 572 on a standalone basis? What downstate politician, after all, every lost an election because he/she voted against more money for Chicago-area transit agencies? Some suburban legislators are likely to continue their opposition to SB 572. Metra, after all, is the service board least in need of a bailout so why would they jeopardize their re-election prospects by voting for what their opponents will characterize as a "CTA bailout" at the suburbs' expense.

Maybe the Senate will tack on a transit bailout package to HB 3860 before sending it back to the House. This seems rather unlikely given the rush to approve the budget before State government starts to shut down.

It is important to remember that HB 3860 is only an operating budget. A capital budget is yet to come. The process of putting together a capital budget may provide one last window of opportunity for the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents to push for more operating subsidies to stave off the fare hikes and service cuts that Pace and the CTA are poised to implement.

It seems impossible, however, for a Chicago casino that is reported to be the source of new money to be up and running soon enough to generate sufficient new operating subsidies for the service boards by the end of this year to stave off "doomsday." Maybe the State could come through with more cash in the short term until a casino is in operation. More likely, the RTA and the service boards would be on their own unless and until new operating dollars start coming in the door from a casino or some other source.

The key question is whether a casino would generate enough money to support both a major state capital program and several hundred million dollars in new annual operating subsidies for public transit. When the legislature realizes that there are too many mouths feeding from the casino trough (including the RTA and the service boards seeking capital funding) to also fund new operating subsidies for public transit, SB 572's regional sales tax increase and Chicago-only real estate transfer tax may start looking better.

In this scenario, SB 572 might be a face-saving way for politicians in early September to "save" the service boards in the nick of time from difficult restructurings and fare increases. But as noted above, the prospects for SB 572 on a standalone basis do not seem bright given gubernatorial opposition and the need to garner a veto-proof majority. Moreover, passage of a casino-based capital construction bill is far from assured.

How many folks think the City of Chicago would risk losing a Chicago casino in an effort to extract more operating subsidies from the State for the CTA?

It is only 9:30 p.m. Who knows what will happen between now and morning.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Doomsday Is Looking Better Every Day

Revised CTA Budget

The CTA Board has adopted a revised doomsday budget that will go into effect in mid-September if the State does not come through with a public transit funding package that will deliver more operating subsidies to the RTA and the service boards. (Stories here, here and here and full CTA details accessible through here.)

From a rider's perspective the revised CTA plan is a definite improvement over the doomsday plan from May. (May plan accessible here.) Fare increases are under 15% for Chicago Card holders and roughly the same for pass holders. There will be no fare increase for the disabled, elderly and students holding discounted fare cards. Cash payers would be the hardest hits, with the base bus and train fares going up 25% and the rush hour train fare going up 50%.

Fewer bus routes are slated for elimination (39), down from the 63 routes targeted for elimination in the earlier plan. The Skokie Swift and the Evanston Express are both spared extinction. The overall service reduction would be 8% rather than 13% under the earlier plan. The estimated loss in ridership is 100,000 per day (6.3%), down from a projected loss of 260,000 riders (16.3%) in the earlier plan.

Reading The Reaction

What is striking about the CTA Board's action is the lack of public outcry over the prospect of significant service reductions and fare increases that will occur in a little more than a month. The Tribune story on the doomsday budget was not on the lists of the most read or the most emailed stories. As of 8 p.m. there was all of one comment on Monifa Thomas' "The Ride" blog for the Sun-Times. The CTA Tattler sticks the news of the adoption of the doomsday budget in its list of news links. There is not even a separate blog entry on the subject.

The issue of public transit funding obviously has not struck a nerve, especially in the less affluent neighborhoods whose residents presumably will bear the brunt of these changes. Compare the ho hum response in these neighborhoods to the strong response to several recent instances of alleged police brutality.

The business community does not seem up in arms by the prospect of an 8% scaling back of the CTA's system. As far as I know no politician or community organizer has been channeling the spirit of Saul Alinsky and working to get folks all charged up on the transit funding issue. A video of the CTA Board meeting (available here) shows a room full of well behaved and well dressed people, a good number of whom work for the CTA. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are nowhere to be seen. Nor does it appear that there was even a desultory protest by community members.

Putting The Natural Monopoly To Rest

What does this muted reaction to public transit "doomsday" tell us about that system? The lesson may be that transit no longer fits into the category of an essential public service, a role it might have played 60 years ago when the CTA was first organized. At that time, the percentage of the population that was transit dependent was much higher than it is today. People on the whole were less affluent so cars were out of the question for many. A larger portion of the population traveled by "mass" transit, which made transit a much more vital underpinning of the local economy.

In that environment, the "natural monopoly" model that viewed public transit as a sort of public utility made some sense. For a country coming off of its second world war, the top-down, one size fits all approach to transportation that the CTA delivered and continues to embody today made practical and cultural sense.

Now, however, most of the CTA's ridership is comprised of "choice" riders who have alternative forms of transportation. The social justice dimension of mainline public transit is much less compelling now that the population is more affluent on the whole and the disabled community is served by its own paratransit system.

The breakdown of the old mass transit/natural monopoly/social service model is a slow and painful process, as evidenced by the steady shrinkage of the CTA bus system over the past few decades through a wrenching series of service cuts.

At the same time, to the extent the CTA no longer is defined by the old mass transit/natural monpoly/social service model it has more opportunity for market innovation and creativity. For example, if the CTA can shut down 39 bus lines in one whack it can shut down and/or realign individual bus routes to respond to demographic changes without the fear of triggering huge community outcries. Fare increases at about the rate of inflation will be possible without the controversies of the past, allowing a greater degree of financial stability. The CTA can focus on improving the quality of its service rather than just putting out as much service as possible.


The fact that the latest doomsday budget has aroused no great controversy indicates that the rhetoric used by the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents was too deeply rooted in the natural monopoly/public service model of the past. That rhetoric of "devastating cuts" and "massive increases" and "doomsday budgets" simply didn't inspire people, who now live in an environment where there are ready alternatives to public transit--the private automobile for the most part, but also walking and biking--that are at least as attractive as public transit.

It is a different world. Maybe folks are willing to take the pain of an 8 percent service cut and a 15 percent fare increase if the slow zones go away, the buses and trains are relatively clean, they can get accurate bus/train arrival times on their computers and cellphones, and their taxes don't increase.

We may not agree with that outcome or the general public's sense of priorities. But surely after the many months of the Moving Beyond Congestion publicity effort and the many editorials supporting more funding for public transit, we can't claim that the public lacked information about what was and is at stake if the CTA and Pace shrink and their fares increase.

If the General Assembly comes through with more money and the CTA and Pace rescind their service cuts and fare increases, there will be a short time for celebration in some quarters. But the funding crises will be back soon enough unless the RTA and the service boards deal with the fact that for the most part public transit is no longer a vital public service akin to water treatment or public hospitals. The riding public has more options and on the whole more money than the riding public of 60 years ago. Rolling out the same old rhetoric about devastating cuts and doomsday budgets just won't cut it anymore.

Outside Innovation

Maybe the shrinkage of the CTA (and Pace) will embolden private entities to offer transit-like service. There may be a market niche waiting to be filled for services such as jitney cabs, subscription van service, and the like, that are less pricey than taxis or private autos but better than the large CTA bus. This is especially so if the price of parking in Chicago goes up significantly faster than the rate of inflation.

The coverage of the CTA's tentative agreement with its labor unions makes no mention whether the CTA will now be able to contract for such alternative transportation services on its own. We must assume that the CTA cannot.

If the CTA cannot provide such transportation services, it would be curious to see how the City of Chicago would respond to private sector initiatives. After all, the exclusive public transit franchise agreement between the City and the CTA is a relic from the natural monopoly era. If the City can run trolley service in competition with the CTA maybe it will be willing to let other entities run competing services as well. The City might find this to be a more palatable alternative to ever greater municipal subsidization of the CTA. Real estate transfer tax today, what tomorrow?

Maybe the SB 572 tax increase or the poor saps who gamble in a Chicago casino will prop up the status quo for awhile longer. But mining Springfield for increased subsidies for public transit is likely to get tougher before it gets easier.