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.


Anonymous said...

It looks like you mention three types of comparisons, which are not necessarily equivalent:

Johnsburg or Circle Line: the only comparison here is how to use scarce transit dollars, or allocate them among service boards, but the two are not comparable to, say, the question of what would better serve commuter traffic in McHenry County, a train or highway construction. The current official attitude is that the Federal Government can make the first determination and "the state will not leave federal dollars on the table." I don't know if I agree with that.

What might be a better comparison is whether the BRT mandated in SB572, improvements to the Metra Heritage Corridor, or the I-55 widening (the latter of which is proceeding) would better serve the SW corridor, or whether the widening is necessary to make the BRT work. Your reference to the impossible supermajority requirement in SB572 is closer to that.

You also mention the SB572 requirement to allocate funds among maintenance, enhancement and expansion projects. The CTA has shown, at least pre-Huberman, an unwillingness to do that, saying for instance, in the Responses to Public Comments regarding the Circle Line that CTA should simultaneously seek funding for New Starts and capital maintenance (page 18) and in response to numerous comments about why the south Red Line extension was not pursued first, said "It is not unusual for a large region such as Chicago to seek and receive federal funding approval for several major transit initiatives at the same time" (page 22). This is independent of its refusal to consider the impact of its projects on the other service boards.

Anonymous said...

"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." Obvious sarcasm, or haven't you heard of the Ogden Carroll Streetcar?

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