Tuesday, September 11, 2007

STAR Crossed?

Crain's Chicago Business reports in its September 10th edition that the Canadian National Railway is in talks with U.S. Steel Corp. to buy the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern tracks for as much as $1 billion.

The EJ&E tracks run from Waukegan to Northwest Indiana, passing through numerous suburban communities including Lake Zurich, Naperville and Joliet. CN plans to use the tracks to reroute rail traffic that now goes through Chicago. This will help speed rail traffic through the region, a top economic and transportation priority.

Hasn't Metra based its STAR Line plans on this same EJ&E corridor? Metra's description of the STAR Line states that:

The 55-mile route, connecting Joliet to O'Hare International Airport, calls for the use of two dedicated transportation corridors. The first corridor is known as the Outer Circumferential Corridor and runs approximately 36 miles along the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern (EJ&E) railroad corridor. The route starts in Joliet, goes north through Plainfield, Naperville, Aurora and West Chicago and continues to Hoffman Estates at Prairie Stone.

The line would then connect to the Northwest Corridor Segment from Prairie Stone, heading east via Schaumburg, Rolling Meadows, Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village and Des Plaines and on to O'Hare International Airport.


If CN is successful in acquiring the EJ&E and using it as the "key bypass route" for rail traffic in the region, what does this mean for Metra's plans to use the same right of way for its STAR Line?

At a minimum, CN's purchase of the EJ&E, its investment in improvements to that railroad and the heavy rail traffic that the line will carry under CN's ownership would make it much more expensive for Metra to acquire track access or actual right of way in the corridor. More dramatically, the region may have to decide whether the EJ&E is more useful to the region if it carries boxcars rather than well-fed folks in boxer shorts.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can answer the last question. The "J" will always be a valuable freight asset, being the only RR that connects (or could connect) with all the radial lines into Chicago. It is questionable whether the STAR will ever happen, even though the concept is innovative and noble. Let's see those ridership predictions and capital expenditure estimates and put them up before the FTA's strict vetting process before we get too excited here.

JJJr's minions, who protested that the STAR isn't intended to serve Park Forest-Chicago Heights-Matteson in its present configuration, miss the point. By the time the STAR winds around the outer loop to Joliet, Aurora, Elgin and the NW Burbs and gets to the airport, you could've taken the Metra Electric, transferred to the Blue Line, and been there a half hour before the STAR. The South Burbs are regionally stiffed in many ways, but they have a gem in Metra Electric that not even the moneyed NW Burbs can rival for frequency and speed of service.
In any case, there is already freight train interference on the "J". Adding some more by a beefed-up CN presence would be no worse than, say, the BNSF Aurora line if the STAR project and/or CN added some tracks. Suffice to say that the present one-track main would not be adequate for the STAR and the present-day "J" anyway (unless an Amtrak-like schedule performance is desired), so it's not a question of whether expansion is needed, but how much.

Anonymous said...

The NTSB report of the CTA Blue Line crash is still more compelling evidence that the RTA is neither organized or staffed to conduct any serious work. Just put it out of its misery already.

The CTA too has lost its way to the point where it cannot even carry out a basic track inspection and maintenance program.

jackonthebus said...

CN hasn't been too cooperative with Metra with regard to the NCS (Wisconsin Central) line, for what that's worth.

Nonetheless, I agree with 6:46, that the current issues are the "corporate accident" at CTA and Metra as indicated in the NTSB report, and what is shows about the effectiveness of those two agencies, generally. One could also add the merits of the borrowing against future state grants to avoid doomsday for about a month, a result not foreseen by the people in the predictions thread. The EJ&E isn't an immediate concern.

Anonymous said...

And the CN nearly pulled out of the state-Amtrak deal to put another train on the Chicago-Carbondale line until things were smoothed over. Again, freight train interference on a once double-tracked main line that was cannibalized in the late 80's and early 90's.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, the 50% farebox recovery ratio was established to force regular fare increases to keep the transit system solvent - at least in its operations.

The boards of the operating agencies (CTA, Metra, Pace) are guilty of dereliction of duty for not raising fares to keep pace with their operting costs. And so now the RTA is seeking a massive new infusion of cash not from its own customers, but from the region through a bunch of crazy tax increases.

The RTA board has also engaged in a lot of chicanery to exempt various costs from the farebox recovery ratio to keep the party going. It too is guilty of dereliction of duty.

Is any of this detailed in the AG's report? How come there is no conversation about the RTA's complete and utter financial mismanagement?

A reluctance to raise fares implies that transit has little or no value to its users. I don't believe that is the case.

Anonymous said...

I think the transit agencies need their own version of the Doomsday Clock, like the one the atomic scientists have at the U of C. Unlike the atomic clock, this one would need to have its hands set at least daily.

Any nominations for the committee to set the hands?

jackonthebus said...

8:49: The Auditor General's report did reflect that the real recovery ratio was about 1/3, not 1/2. Some of this was legislated into the RTA Act, such as exempting the cost of security. Other than that, the AG report's focused more on unaccounted liabilities, such as the CTA Pension Fund mess, and the inference could be drawn that since no cash was spent on resolving that problem, it didn't go against the expense side of the recovery ratio.

Pace has had a long history of fiddling with the recovery ratio, such as incorporating Downers Grove and the Schaumburg Trolley into its budget, since with most of the subsidy coming from those municipalities, that made the recovery ratio look better, although there was no increase in passenger fare revenue. Pace also used the idea of applying federal "capital cost of contracting" funds on the revenue side of the recovery ratio. These actions masked the issue that regardless of how the recovery ratio is calculated, there is only a finite source of tax funds to subsidize the expense portion, and resulted in all of the service boards now complaining that funds for capital improvements have been depleted to some extent (supposedly nearly completely in Pace's case) because they were applied to operating.

As previously noted here, SB572 had a decreasing exemption from the recovery ratio so that the infusion of subsidy funds would not result in an immediate corresponding fare increase.

Finally, the recovery ratio issue may be similar to charges that the RTA did not comply with the requirement of a balanced budget by choosing to "balance" the budget with de facto borrowing against 2008 and the contingency plans in the fourth quarter, if state funding did not materialize--the actions may technically be within the law, but loopholes have made the results fiscally irresponsible.

On a related note, besides the temporary fix resulting in fares not being increased, Pace had already said that certain low productivity routes would have been cut in any event as part of a general housekeeping enabled by holding hearings on its contingency plan, but that has also been postponed until Nov. 4. See the Press Release.

Anonymous said...

The farebox recovery ratio is about the only performance measure the RTA has. The RTA seems to be quite adept at manipulating the numbers to paint a picture of perforamnce that meets the statutory requirement. If the RTA were a public company the ED and CFO would now be serving prison time for conspiracy/fraud.

Anonymous said...

Hilkevitch did a pretty good job of detailing management failures at the CTA in his article on the blue line crash/NTSB report that appeared in the Sunday trib. But he completely missed the RTA's own management failure and complicit role in this episode. FOr years the RTA has been blindly approving capital programs of the Service Boards, including the CTA. Meaning, the RTA has no information positive or negative about the state of repair of the system on which to judge the content of the Service Board capital programs. Apparently you can't buy much detail for $1.9 million either, as the much ballyhooed strategic plan is devoid of any useful information about the state of repair of the system.

jackonthebus said...

Reading the last comment made me recall the RTA Press Release, to which I was linked by chicago-l.org. Typical three steps:
1. We acknowledge and support the findings.
2. We don't have the power and would like more.
3. We want more funding.

I also saw Dennis Byrne's commentary, which seemed on point.

Anonymous said...

My god, what is this backwards obsession with increasing farebox recovery? We *want* people to use public transit *more* (and their cars less). All this rhetoric about the value to the RTA's or CTA's "customers" misses the point: the principle benefits of public transit accrue to society generally, in our air being cleaner, the planet not melting, and streets and beighborhoods being marred less by traffic.

The non-monetary costs of public transit (time, discomfort, inconvenience) are frequently enough by themselves to keep people using their cars for many trips. Why would we want to exacerbate that by charging higher fares?

If the value of transit use was fully recognized, fares would be half what they are now, and the remainder of the RTA's budget would be derived from higher gas taxes and parking fees.

jackonthebus said...

11:04, the necessary counterweight is that the transit authorities have shown that they can spend through any tax allocation without demonstrating that they can run the system safely and efficiently. The recovery ratio requirement was instituted in 1983 based on the 1981 experience that after spending through that tax source, CTA was forced to about double fares, and many suburban bus systems were suspended. Once the RTA stopped subsidizing the private bus companies and railroads, the ICC tried to step in, making a real mess.

There may be an argument as to what the recovery ratio should be based on the goals you stated. However, there must also be some measurement of whether the service being provided is being used. I mentioned the Pace low productivity routes earlier. One should also question whether CTA should be running 40 or 30 foot buses on some routes that have productivity of only 10 passengers an hour, far below the service standard. Some of that analysis was being forced by the contingency plans, but it seems like the temporary bailout that occurred and the one now proposed ended that consideration. BTW, I am not saying to totally terminate service, but maybe a paratransit model run by contractors would better serve the riders and the taxpayers than running the nearly empty 40 foot bus, that is not contributing to the recovery ratio. Pace was studying in the South Cook-Will restructuring whether to replace some bus routes with dial-a-ride, and that might also be a more viable solution in some of the outlying city areas. However, without some usage standard, that will never happen.

jackonthebus said...

On the question whether fares should be reduced to encourage transit use, while I will concede that increasing fares tends to decrease ridership, I also submit that the following should also be considered:

a. There are basically two markets for public transit--(1) those who need it to get to work and can't afford either higher fares or to have their route cut, and (2) the discretionary riders. I doubt that under current conditions, reducing the fares would markedly increase the latter. If someone like Carole Brown, by her own admission, rides the CTA only a couple of times a month, it isn't because of the price. Her excuse is that she has to use taxis because of her busy schedule. The main justification for the Airport Direct Service (stuck behind a local train), according to the consultant, is that airline passengers would pay $10 a ride for better amenities than provided by the $2 Blue Line trip, such as luggage service. Most Metra tickets cost far less than parking in the Loop, not to consider the other costs of driving. Thus, one must consider that the real cost of transit use is not monetary, but the inconvenient schedule or routing, the conditions the rider confronts (unreliable service, dirty stations, panhandlers on the train, the occasional subway fire, etc.), and disincentives to occasional ridership (such as the need to first get and load a Chicago Card, because cash fares are higher, and bus transfers are no longer issued, not to mention the business about the Cards expiring).

b. CTA now claims that rush hour is scheduled to capacity. Thus, Huberman's contingency plan of raising the rush hour fare makes economic sense, since any increase in demand could only be met by making great capital investments. Ways should be developed to increase utilization during other periods, instead.

jackonthebus said...

Since the prior commentator recognized "[t]he non-monetary costs of public transit (time, discomfort, inconvenience) are frequently enough by themselves to keep people using their cars for many trips," I should have added that reducing the fare probably wouldn't be enough to bring the discretionary riders back. Instead, those problems should be addressed and maybe the riders would pay more.