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?


Anonymous said...

Maybe congestion is not that bad eh?

Anonymous said...

Capitol Fax is reporting that Pace will cut 23 poorly performing bus routes and raise fares on local feeders 25 cents from $1.25 to $1.50. if new state funding is not forthcoming.

By all means bring it on. Why haven't these things already been done? CTA too has scaled back its doomsday plan. It just goes to show there is still a lot of slack in the transit system.

There seems to be very little credibility left in the RTA's story of how much money is needed to keep the system operating. And yet the legislature appears ready to plunge ahead with foolish tax increases.

SB 572 is very disappointing in all aspects, and not worthy of legislative approval.

Anonymous said...

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

If you are comparing the number of earmarks for public transit; the key question is the above statement by the moderator.

But if you are asking for an additional $400M; but wind up getting $435M in 2008 and $500+ in 2009; why would you push for meager pork projects?

The juice is in the new starts projects; my assumption is that these new starts projects in the past decade are swayed toward Metra outward western expansion of the region(deep in GOP territory); followed by the CTA expansions (think Pink Line and Brown Line renovation).

There will never be pork projects for projects such as additional dial a ride by PACE in certain legisative districts; unless someone can prove me wrong.

pc said...

These earmarks are typically non-recurring, and thus tend to go to small capital projects. Transit doesn't have many small capital projects to consider, since transit only creates true value when it's part of a larger network.

Try thinking of how to spend $10,000 to improve CTA service in your neighborhood. Kind of hard, isn't it?

Moderator said...


How about station beautification. More bike racks. Dedicated space for car share service (e.g., I-Go) near station. Another bus stop shelter. Next bus arrival time scrolling message board. An extra $10,000 worth of bus service. Free ride incentives as part of customer outreach effort. Free rides for seniors/low income people in neighborhood. Sidewalk improvements near bus stop or train station. Bus stop snow removal (think ahead to January and jumping over snow ridges to get to bus). Extra station security (e.g., camera). Extra janitorial service. Wi-FI/Wi-Max antenna plugged into CTA fiber system that will give commuters and nearby homes/business a free internet connection.

Note that your $10,000 figure is way below the average earmark amount. Most of the member incentives are in the $20,000 - $100,000 range, with some going as high as $500,000. That may seem like peanuts to transit agencies, but it was good enough for the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Board of Education.

Finally, talking to legislators about little needs is a great opportunity to talk to them about the big stuff. From a legislator's perspective it must seem odd that the transit agencies ask for big money but are never around (I'm presuming) when the easy money gets doled out. The legislators must be wondering how needy the transit agencies are if they aren't scrambling for the little stuff like everyone else.

Anonymous said...

The political case as always...has been made. The business case has not.

Anonymous said...

One might find relevant the following from Steve Chapman in the Tribune. While he was talking about highway spending, and how it is not prioritized for maintenance, but earmarked, it also applies to transit:
"When people mess up royally in the private sector, they are punished by the loss of money and even the disappearance of the entities that employ them. When people mess up royally in the public sector, they often get more money and responsibilities."

Anonymous said...

Has RTA issued a statement?

pc said...

Even $100,000 doesn't buy much bus service; Lake-Cook TMA's Shuttle Bugs cost about $500,000 a year, and the tourist trolleys and University of Chicago supplemental services have ~$2M budgets.

I'm on an SSA commission that has investigated a few solutions in the five-figure range, and it's good to know we've thought of most of the quick ideas (snow clearance, bus times, station cleaning and artwork). It would be nice to begin coordinating with our state reps to put these sorts of things on their radar, though.

However, NextBus requires that Bus Tracker be fully operational first. I'd say that this should be JCDecaux's responsibility, but apparently it isn't in their contract (even though Adshel, a competing bus shelter contract bidder, offered it). CTA is apparently prohibited from giving most "free rides" (or even "Eco Passes") under its enabling legislation. Maybe if it were an RTA thing -- although that would require a universal farecard first, wouldn't it?

jackonthebus said...

Despite all the rumination about where the pork should be directed, maybe the Gov did the right thing by line item vetoing it, and Jones by upholding the veto. The question is, considering the difference between Illinois Constitution Art IV section 9(d) (line item veto) and 9(e) (amendatory veto), the line item cuts surely stick, but if the amendatory veto was used to divert the money to health care, wouldn't the legislature have to ratify that? Maybe the taxpayers have just saved $500 million. Any authorities on state constitutional law here?

pc said...

In any case, my point was that transit doesn't benefit as much from these kinds of "mini" capital project as parks or bike/walk does. (The ongoing operations budget for bike/walk projects is almost nil, and bike/walk advocates have trouble funding things like education that DO entail ongoing costs.) A new bike path or playground is one of the cheapest way for a politician to get a ribbon-cutting photo op, and then the thing largely takes care of itself.

Not only does transit not get much in the way of these small earmarks, it doesn't get much in CMAQ or Enhancements funds, among the most flexible of TEA funds. CTA does go after those funds, though.