Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Region's Transportation Team: Response To Its Defenders

I've been taking some hits in the comments from those who believe that my criticisms (here, here and here) of this region's transportation team are unfair. (By "transportation team" I mean that extended network of planners, academics, NGOs and transportation agency executives that is largely responsible for the stewardship of our regional transportation system.)

I can take it. I'm a big person. But I feel compelled to respond. Bear with me. I think the issue of the performance of our transportation team is important to understanding the pickle the region finds itself when it comes to transportation generally, and public transit in particular.

The Blame The Politicians Argument

The thrust of the defenders' argument is that you shouldn't blame the team. Rather, the blame lies with an "Orweillan" political system that presumably squelches the creativity and best laid plans of the planners, transportation agency executives, and transportation NGOs who make up the team.

This argument doesn't hold water. Certainly, if we could clone John Norquist by the hundreds and install him in political offices throughout the region (and state) it might be a bit easier for transit and land-use plans favored by transit-oriented planners to be implemented. Barring that, are the political and demographic fundamentals of this region all that different from the fundamentals in large urban regions elsewhere in the United States?

Most if not all urban regions have sprawling suburbs/exurbs, a surplus of overlapping jurisdictions charged with transportation and planning, growing congestion problems and a continued decline in the relative importance of the central city in terms of population and employment. Is the quality of the local and state political leadership in this region markedly worse than the similarly situated political leadership in other large urban areas?

The transportation team, after all, has the responsibility to engage political leaders as they find them. Their job is to inform, inspire and, yes, cajole these political leaders to embrace transportation and land-use policies that will benefit the quality of life and enhance the economic competitiveness of the region. Politicians, be they as saintly as Paul Simon or as venal as [fill in the blank] typically don't come to office with a nuanced understanding of transportation issues. It's the team's job to bring them along, saint or sinner.

More Indicia Of Team Weakness

There are more indicia of the weakness of our region's transportation team than just the recent loss of an Urban Partnership Program grant because of an overly timid and undeveloped grant proposal, the seeming across-the-board rejection of congestion/roadway pricing by politic ans and editorialists, and the fact that Indiana is way ahead of Illinois in putting together the Illiana Expressway, an important addition to the region's interstate system to handle projected increases in east-west truck traffic.


This region has at least one substantial academic transportation center: The Urban Transportation Center at UIC. Other than a few quotes pooh-poohing congestion pricing (Siim Soot comment), what contribution did this academic center make to the debate over the Moving Beyond Congestion Plan? Surely there is some significance to the fact that the RTA chose to engage a private consultant to churn out the Moving Beyond Congestion analyses rather than rely on local academic talent from UIC or any of the other universities in the area.

Ask yourself, when is the last time you found that the work of a local transportation academic made a significant difference in your professional work? When did the the popular work of one of those local transportation academics (e.g., op-ed column) inspire you? Thought so.


The last few federal transportation bills (ISTEA, TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU) contained a variety of innovative programs. It is impossible to survey all of these programs, so let's take innovative transportation financing programs. This region has ample public finance talent (e.g., investment bankers, lawyers) and a wide variety of transportation infrastructure needs. It was (and is) well situated to be at the edge of innovation. Yet, what does the record show with respect to how well our transportation team utilized these assets to take advantage of the federal innovative financing programs:

TIFIA Loan Program (see "TIFIA Projects"): $3.2 billion in TIFIA assistance used to support $13.2 billion total investment in 12 projects in 10 states. No Illinois participation.

State Infrastructure Banks: $6 billion dispersed in 33 states via 520 agreements. No Illinois participation.

Private Activity Bonds (see "PPP Update"): New program under SAFETEA-LU. $4.8 billion for three projects in three states. No Illinois participation.

GARVEE (see "GARVEE Roundup"): $6.6 billion in 41 bond issues in 20 states. No Illinois participation. (Note, however, that the CTA has been able to issue GARVEE-like bonds backed by FTA full funding grant agreements over the RTA's vigorous objections.)

This region has long been a laggard when it comes to keeping up with innovative financing techniques. ISTEA had an innovative financing program that ended a decade ago. The region's transportation team was asleep at the switch even back then:

TE-045 (see Appendix 1): Approximately 40 states took advantage of the program in 88 projects. No Illinois participation.

Professional Recognition

If the region's transportation team was top-notch, you would expect that the team members would get the recognition of their peers and play a major leadership role in transportation-related professional organizations. Alas, the team appears to be stuck at the end of the bench.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials ("AASHTO") is the leading professional organization on the highway side. The region's team is pretty much a non-presence in the leadership ranks:

AASHTO Executive Committee: No Illinois representation.

Standing Committee on Finance and Administration: Nope.

Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety: Nope.

Standing Committee on Highways: Nope.

Standing Committee on Planning: Nope.

Standing Committee on Public Transportation: Tim Martin, formerly the Secretary of IDOT, is the Chair.

Standing Committee on Quality: Nope.

Standing Committee on Research: Nope.

Standing Committee on Rail Transportation: Nope.

Standing Committee on Water Transportation: Nope.

On the public transit side, things aren't any better. Bernard Ford from the CTA served as President of the American Public Transportation Association ("APTA") years ago. He was the only person from the region to serve in that capacity in the past 20-25 years.

Currently, there are no team members on the APTA Executive Committee. APTA's Board of Directors has 98--count 'em--members. The only local name I recognize as serving on that huge board is Steve Schlickman, the RTA's Executive Director. No offense to Steve, but the qualification for becoming a member of a 98 member board is probably just showing up for meetings.


The purpose of this exercise and my alleged "whining" about the region's transportation team is not to take cheap and anonymous shots at folks who on the whole are smart, dedicated and well-intentioned. Instead, the purpose is to remind us that fixing what ails the region's transportation system is more than just a matter of money and nips and tucks to the RTA Act.

The team with its accumulated expertise has a crucial role to play in jump-starting innovation when it comes to the design, execution and financing of transportation projects in this region. The first step is to recognize that this region is behind many of its competitors--e.g., New York City, Texas, and (it pains me to say it) Indiana. There are plenty of hard-knuckled and not always visionary politicians in those places too. The team needs to stop laying the failures of vision and innovation at the feet of their political clients and start figuring out how to yoke vision to power.

Maybe our politicians--and the public they represent--are having a hard time buying what the team is selling because they instinctively know that the product is mediocre. Witness the terribly difficult ongoing struggle to get just the operating funding portion of the Moving Beyond Congestion funding package through Springfield.


HealthyCity said...

As one who was on the critical side, I'll hand it to Moderator for laying out a good case. We probably could up the quality of the regional "team" a bit. Maybe that's why Kruesi brought in all those MIT folks? He saw something lacking locally.

A couple of adds:
Moderator asked, "Is the quality of the local and state political leadership in this region markedly worse than the similarly situated political leadership in other large urban areas?"

I really, truly, believe the answer to that is a "yes." The parliamentary structure and procedural rules of the Illinois General Assembly allows power to fall so completely into the hands of the 4 leaders that it very hard for independent (aka "creative") ideas and leaders to even get heard. They hold all the campaign dough, and the legislative support functions (aides, research funds, committee assignments, etc.). The political machinery in both parties in Illinois is notorious and, it should now be said, the nepotistic parts are hard to ignore. Constitutionally, referenda are next to impossible to implement, and both bodies of the G.A. are based on the same gerry-mandered borders (a faux bi-cameralism, if it can be called that).*

Do these problems exist elsewhere? Yes, but not every one, added up, so bad, all in the same state. Illinois really is in a league of its own.

As far as the quality of the regional "team." There may be truth in what Moderator says, but in the end it is the politician. If you were a talented transportation engineer or urban planner, why would you stick around here if half your ideas go no where and your talent is wasted. So what Moderator sees as a lack of local talent, I see as nothing but a lack of leadership not willing to get that talent. Maybe we're saying the same thing, but it's a part of the equation.

* This is why we need to hold a Constitutional Convention in 2010. Check out Article XIV, Section 1.

Anonymous said...

Nice try--

1) With regards to your backwards compatible argument regarding "fundamentals" eg. Can our politicians be less or more (fill in the variable) than "peer" region's---

One cannot simply draw valid conclusions from the existence of a phyla (in your case politicians) in varying locations AND ignore the fecundity of their habitats.

Yes there are snails and slugs in Greenland but they are nothing compared to the glorious varietal splendor and numbers of similar species in the tropical rainforests of Belize for instance. In the latter, they are truly a force to be reckoned with. In fact they actually drive the ecosystem. Like regeneration of Bond Issuances Eh?

So, regarding the fundamentals, who has as many units of local government? Who has as many of those units patched into an appointed rather than an elective process of shadow governance? Who has as many congenital legal and legislated ambiguities in their powers and authorities? Who has the same spoils intensive tripartite local geopolitics? Who has as many taxing bodies stalking er... levying, for the benefit of another public body?

Borrowing your logic in turn, if the environment here is not so unique, than why is transit reform so difficult here? The answer is that our politicians are more competent! Ask Patrick Fitzgerald for references.

2)"The transportation team, after all, has the responsibility to engage political leaders as they find them." Really?

One cannot point to an effect on one hand to prove the non-existance of the condition on the other. That is like Kruschev criticizing the US system for spawning dissidence and civil unrest during the Vietnam War and pointing to his society's relative order while denying the existence of the Gulags.

So, here's an easy one, after Daley's declaration against Congestion Pricing, what public official has dared to speak to the contrary. Are they dolts or are they censured? Or HOV on the Stevenson, or TOD in the neighborhoods, etc?

Ask AASHTO to send you figures on their particpant's travel budgets compared to the participation from Illinois. You can't participate if you can't go.

"What contribution did this academic center make to the debate over the Moving Beyond Congestion Plan?"

Debate? They were under contract! To support it! As was virtually everyone else. There are no research grants...they are all "funding" arrangements.

This could go on indefinitely and the list of brave souls banished to parts afar would be to much for this forum...but perhaps you should just acquire a nice sturdy quaderne, a pith helmet, khakis and some sturdy netting and explore the bush of public service like Margaret Meade before you have to do it like Richard Leakey.

Anonymous said...

9:57 has his or her points.

The only real advocates here are those who financially benefit, either the Concrete Contractors Association (when was the last time you saw a letter in favor of retaining tolls on the Tollway not signed by it) and their ilk, and as 9:57 says, various people whom Patrick Fitzgerald has now indicted (do Stu Levine, Jacob Kieferbaum and hospital construction ring a bell?). The latter provide the fecundity in which our politicians thrive. In another area where the legislature is paralyzed, school funding commercials are being furnished by the teachers' unions, like they don't have a self interest.

Leaving that, isn't it the case that the only times transit reform has occurred have been when a crisis was fomented? Like in 1973 (CTA has its first big cuts and fare increases, Evanston and Glenview bus companies go out of business, IC petitions the Interstate Commerce Commission to raise fares by 150%, and the RI is a total mess), and 1981 (CTA raises fares several times in the year, RTA can't make payments to suburban carriers, and the Illinois Commerce Commission tries to reassert jurisdiction only for the purpose of flexing muscle, since it has never in its history solved a transit crisis)? The 1981 crisis apparently took 2 years to resolve and only then resulted in the restructuring of the RTA; maybe that has to happen again. In all cases, very little leadership was or is being exercised until it was or is too late.

One of Moderator's links (btw, you need to get the %20 out of them) mentioned that Daley is a prime user of TIFs. However, there was no mention of him using them for transit. The now defunct Campaign for Better Transit kept saying that he didn't, but should.

As another example of reverse cause and effect, aren't the MPOs here just because one is needed to get federal funds, rather than to initiate a plan? Isn't that indicated by the fact that the original HB1841 repeatedly said that the RTA should follow the MPO's plan? How can the MPO plan on a regional basis if there are a myriad of municipalities with home rule powers and other units of local government, including one governed as described in 9:57's item 2?

Finally, we have a state where one candidate lives in the fecund pool of campaign contributions raised by people of the type mentioned in the first paragraph, wins by attacking the other candidate on "what's she thinking," has no mandate, cannot play with his counterparts in any other part of state government, and now only governs by threatening vetoes.

What influence could academics have in such an environment?