Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Politician Scorecard: Who Supports SB 572

Kind reader Matt Maldre has created a map showing where the votes for SB 572 came from when it was voted on by the House in September. His accompanying commentary browbeats the suburban Republicans who voted no despite the high per-ride public subsidies for Metra and Pace.

He has also prepared a downloadable flyer targeted at the representatives who voted against SB 572 but who represent areas served by Metra's line to Elgin. He asks that you print them out and distribute them.

Those representatives who voted against SB 572 even those they and their constituents benefit from the Elgin Metra line and other public transit services are: Timothy Schmitz, Ruth Munson, Harry Ranney, Fred Crespo, Franco Coladipietro, Dennis Reboletti, and Angelo Saviano.

It may make folks feel better to yell at Ron Huberman, but these seven representatives are key to getting SB 572 through the House. Act accordingly if you want SB 572 to pass.

Local 241: Inside Track Or Taken For A Ride?

As we get closer to the first transit doomsday the rhetoric is heating up. The Mayor of Chicago tells Springfield that it is do-or-die time and to get its act together, but adds not a dime to Chicago's $3 million annual contribution to the Chicago Transit Authority's operating budget, which has not changed for almost 25 years. The CTA lines up 39 buses representing each of the bus routes that will be cut in the first doomsday. The Senate Minority leader, Frank Watson, sends a letter urging fare hikes. Federal legislators warn that the CTA's troubles may keep Chicago from ascending to the Olympian heights. The looming doomsday finally prompts a spirited public hearing at Lane Tech High School.

What may be most interesting, however, is yesterday's U-turn by the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 241. Local 241 represents the CTA's bus drivers and will lose approximately 600 members if the cuts go through. Like the CTA's other unions, Local 241 has agreed to significant concessions as part of the SB 572 process.

According to reports (here and here) Local 241 was preparing a press conference to roll out a plan to file a lawsuit and take other aggressive action intended to forestall doomsday. At the last minute, Local 241 dropped these plans. Its spokesperson cited promises from legislative leaders that the transit funding problems would be fixed in time to avert doomsday.

Here is Channel 2's take:

by the time their 1 p.m. news conference finally got going at nearly 3:30, union officials had backed way off because, they said, of promises from key legislative leaders.

"The legislature will take action and will be responsible and not allow one of the largest mass transit systems become paralyzed," Melvin Caldwell, ATU Local Union 241, said.

No details were offered either by the union or state politicians. For his part, Mayor Richard M. Daley expressed sympathy with the angry bus drivers, noting that they had recently ratified a new contract that provides no immediate pay raise and makes long-term concessions on the cost of health care and pensions.

"They've done their part. Sure they're upset. This is ridiculous. Now, this is the week that adults in Springfield have to do their job," Daley said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan says he's not aware of any breakthrough.

Does Local 241 have an inside track to a transit funding solution, or has it been taken for a ride?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Do Americans Embrace Smart Growth And Tolls?

Smart Growth America has released the results of an opinion poll assessing the public's attitudes concerning some land use and transportation issues. The national survey of 1,000 adults has a 3.7% margin of error. Some of the results are interesting.

The study found relatively strong support for public transportation. In response to the question "which of the following proposals is the best long-term solution to reducing traffic in your areas" the results were as follows:
  • Improve public transportation (49%)
  • Develop communities where people do not have to drive as much (26%)
  • Build new roads (21%)
Do you think these results will send a chill through road builders associations, or do they know that when the public says it favors public transportation it really means public transportation that the other guy has to take?

The respondents clearly favored improved fuel efficiency over increased taxes as a way to reduce energy use. When asked if they strongly approved of the following solutions to climate and energy problems, they responded:
  • Regulate the car industry to make vehicles more efficient (74% strongly approve/90% total approve)
  • Provide improved public transportation (62%/88%)
  • Require homes and other buildings to be more energy efficient (62%/88%)
  • Build communities where people can walk places so that people can use their cars less (49%/83%)
  • Increase taxes on gasoline to discourage driving (8%/16%)
Clearly, the public values existing levels of mobility.

When is comes to land use, 81% said they preferred that new housing and commercial development be placed in already developed areas rather than continuing to build suburbs on the edge of existing suburbs (14%). When it comes to more specifics, 61% favored limits on new home construction in outlying areas and investment in very urban areas, 57% said they favor building businesses and homes closer together, within walking distance (57%) and to shorten commutes (55%).

Respondents strongly opposed (72%) privatization of existing public roads and using toll concessions to private companies to build new roads (52%). Total oppose percentages were 84% and 66%, respectively.

Interestingly, the percentage of respondents who strongly approved charging tolls on more roads if the result was better roads and reduced traffic congestion (26%) almost matched the percentage of people of who strongly disapproved (33%). In all, 55% approved of tolling and 44% disapproved. In the Great Lake states, the approval rate was 58% and the disapproval rate only 41%.

What to make of these numbers? The percentage of people strongly approving of tolls (26%) was over three times as high as those who strongly approved of an increase in the gas tax (8%). Some of all of the difference might be how the questions were phrased. People were asked if they supported a gas tax to reduce driving or tolls to improve highways and reduce congestion. Perhaps the approval rate would be higher for the gas tax if respondents had been asked if they supported such a tax if it resulted in better roads and reduced congestion.

Nevertheless, the results suggest more public support for--or at least tolerance of--tolling than for gas taxes. This is too bad in at least one respect. It is much cheaper to collect gas taxes than it is to collect tolls.

Another interesting finding is the relatively strong public support for using toll revenue on transportation uses other than the toll highway on which the tolls are collected. When asked whether they approved of spending toll revenue on the following uses, the respondents responded as follows:
  • Toll money would be spent on maintaining all roads (48% strongly approve/77% total approve)
  • Toll money would be spent on public transportation as well as roads (41%/70%)
  • Toll money would be spent only on building and maintaining the toll roads (26%/47%).
Perhaps the respondents didn't realize that higher tolls will result if toll money is "diverted" from the toll roads to other uses. But perhaps the public recognizes that some roads add sufficient value that relatively high tolls are appropriate and can be used in part to subsidize other parts of the transportation network. Maybe this suggests that it is politically possible to increase the tolling of roads so long as the the proceeds are used to fund public transit and improvements in arterial roads.

Despite some significant support for tolling, the respondents were less enthusiastic about congestion pricing. When asked if they supported charging tolls to reduce congestion during rush hour 47% strongly opposed the idea and only 20% strongly supported the idea. In all only 37% supported the idea and 61% opposed the idea. When asked if they favored congestion pricing if the money were spent on transportation alternatives to the highway, the strongly opposed percentage dropped from 47% to 35% and the strongly support percentage went from 20% to 26%. The public was evenly split--49% to 49% on whether they approved or disapproved of congestion pricing if proceeds were used to support travel alternatives.

For me the most surprising result was the level of support for (a) concentrating investment in existing built-up areas and restricting greenfield sprawl and (b) higher fuel economy limits. The level of support for tolling and "diverting" toll revenue from toll roads to other uses was also surprising, especially in light of the reluctance to embrace congestion pricing.

Is there a common theme in these results? If I had to pick one it is that policies or rhetoric that appear designed to reduce use of roads (e.g., gas taxes and to lesser extent congestion pricing) are disfavored while policies that do not seem intended to restrict freedom but may nonetheless raise the cost of driving (e.g., road tolling, increased fuel economy standards) are more heavily supported.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dan Ryan Project Complete: Assessment

The Dan Ryan project is complete. The final cost ($975 million) is way over the original budget ($550 million), but the project was completed on schedule. Some questions to consider:

1. What accounts for the cost overruns and was the project a worthwhile investment of almost $1 billion of capital dollars?

2. How do you assess the outreach effort to motorists concerning the project?

3. There was a great deal of controversy over the level of minority participation in the project--How do you assess IDOT's efforts in this regard?

4. What lessons can be learned from the project?

5. Did IDOT blow it by not installing a high occupancy toll (HOT) lane?

6. The average daily traffic volume was 300,000 before the reconstruction: How soon before traffic volume (a) returns to that level and (b) reaches a level where the congestion is as bad as is was before the project?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Herald Of The Apocalypse

West North blog has a recent post by Payton Chung entitled "CTA Bus Cuts In Perspective" that got picked up Friday by Capitol Fax Blog to leaven its discussion of transit funding issues.

The post starts with the ridership on the 84 CTA bus routes that the CTA will cut when implementing the November and January doomsdays (308,262). Since cars on average carry only 1.2 passengers, this is the equivalent of "256,885 cars a day of capacity." The author points out that this figure is higher than the traffic volume at certain points on major local expressways and even approaches Metra's daily ridership.

The author then zooms in for the kill:

If the Kennedy bridge at Fullerton collapsed, or if terrorists took out both I-55 and Lake Shore Drive, or if Metra just up and died, how would this state’s government react? I bet they wouldn’t spend years squabbling, dilly-dallying, grand-standing, and pork-padding.

Sure, people will adapt to bus route elimination (reducing trips, taking alternate routes and modes), but they’d adapt to a freeway shutdown, too.

This is over the top, and not in a helpful way. It is wrong to assume that each trip on a bus route that is being eliminated will result in a new car on the road. If the typical trip on transit is to and from a work, school or other location, then 308,000 trips would represent about 150,000 new cars even if we assume that everyone taking the bus is going to use a car if the bus route is cut.

This assumption, however, doesn't stack up either. First, as the author recognizes, at least some of those taking bus routes that will be eliminated will switch to other public transit routes. Second, others will switch to different transportation modes, such as biking, scooters, car pools, taxis, and walking. Third, a certain percentage of people currently using the bus routes being eliminated will take fewer trips overall.

While it is dramatic to suggest that an inflated projection of new autos on the road is higher than the number of vehicles that pass through certain points on major highways, that observation overlooks the fact that the CTA bus lines being cut are spread around Chicago and the inner suburbs. Not all the folks whose bus lines are being cut, for example, will be traveling on the Kennedy Expressway at Fullerton. Some are going to the Loop. Some are going to the suburbs. Some are going to other parts of Chicago.

What is the capacity of the Chicago streets and highways to absorb the additional traffic generated from the elimination of these CTA bus lines? I haven't found a source for how many miles of streets are in Chicago. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says that "by the 1990s, the Chicago metropolitan area had 54,600 miles of streets and roads, including 2,500 miles of expressways, 17,300 miles of highways and arterial streets, and 34,800 miles of local streets."

Let's assume (a) that Chicago has 10,000 miles of streets and roads, a figure likely less than its actual complement, (b) 100,000 of the riders on the CTA bus routes being cut switch to cars, and (c) all their trips are in Chicago. This means that we have 10 additional cars per mile of available street. But, of course, we don't all travel at the same time. If we divide by 24 hours in the day, this results in 0.42 new cars per mile. Let's divide by 10, however, which leaves 1 additional car per mile.

Overstating the "devastating" consequences of the impending cuts and engaging in overblown rhetoric (e.g., equating the effect of the cuts to "terrorism") will further undermine the credibility of the public transit providers and their supporters. Folks are already suffering from "doomsday fatigue" after several years of doomsday scenarios. If the apocalypse fails to materialize when the doomsdays finally arrive, who is going to believe the public transit proponents the next time doomsday fever hits the town.

Let me be clear: There are going to be adverse consequences from the CTA bus line cuts and in some areas these consequences are going to be quite noticeable. In most of the city, however, these effects are going to be barely felt during most or all of the day because the current level of transit ridership in those areas is not that high. In denser areas already facing traffic congestion challenges and with heavier existing transit ridership, the effects will be more severe, especially during rush hour. These localized impacts, however, hardly add up to a city-wide apocalypse.

Rather than fear mongering, we should focus on dealing with those localized effects. There are a range of tools, including encouraging private sector transit (e.g., van pools), improving bike commuting options, and more efficiently utilizing our stock of automobiles through shared vehicle services like I-Go and ride-sharing social networking platforms like GoLoco.

The key problem is that our transit agencies are neither empowered nor inclined to roll out such alternatives to their services. Their hopes lie with SB 572 and its continuation of business as usual with an RTA twist or two and lots more operating subsidies.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pace's Doomsday--Shrug & Yawn

Pace reminds me of the tall, gawky kid wearing too short pants who always seemed out of place in high school, a kind of social embarrassment that no one knew what to do with. Pace runs big, central-city style buses through suburbs largely built and populated by folks who actively want to turn their back on urban life and prefer the rolling cocoon of a private auto over the--gasp!--social mixing required to ride in a bus. Pace's buses just don't fit in well in this milieu.

Despite all the moans and groans about traffic congestion in the suburbs, Pace can't compete against the private auto. As a result, its buses rarely carry full loads, which mean that they embarrass and anger many suburbanites. It has to be tough to try to run a public transit service in an region demographically, culturally and geographically stacked against you.

In the face of these odds, Pace has clung to life. In recent years it even took on the huge job of picking up the CTA's paratransit operation. This gave Pace full responsibility for coordinating and supplying paratransit services for the entire six-county region. Paratransit is another thankless job because it is an unfunded federal mandate. Fares cover only a fraction of the $25-$30 per trip cost and ridership demand is growing much faster than the rate of population growth or transit operating subsidies.

You would think that such a plucky agency would have earned some public support over the years. After all, American's like an underdog do they not? Think again.

Pace faces a doomsday scenario in a matter of days that appears to be at least as bad in the relative sense as the CTA's doomsday scenario, featuring fare increases, route cuts, job eliminations, and the like. Pace held a public hearing on its looming doomsday in Joliet earlier this week and here is what happened per the Joliet Herald News:

JOLIET -- Even though a Pace bus stopped right behind city hall Monday night, fewer than 10 people attended a Pace 2008 budget hearing to comment on cuts that could eliminate bus service on weekends and after 7 p.m. weeknights.

Amazing. The dismantling of what is portrayed as being a vital public service looms and fewer than 10 people show up to squawk or gawk at a public hearing held in a city of over 100,000 people that is the seat of a county of about 700,000. What has Pace done to merit such a striking lack support from the public, the politicians and the business community?

In light of this non-response to Pace's impending doomsday, do we have to assume that the suburban public would just as soon let Pace's mainline (i.e., non-paratransit) service die on the vine? And what if it did?

Moderator's note: Pace might have gotten a few more people at the hearing at its headquarters the next day, although the article does not mention the number of people who attended.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Get Your Kicks On Route 67

The Illinois Department of Transportation, which has taken a drubbing on occasion in this blog (e.g., here and here), nonetheless seems to be making an effort to keep folks informed about major highway projects via a set of project websites. Link to index of project websites is here.

The latest project to get its own website is the U.S. Route 67 project. The Route 67 project corridor goes 223 miles from Interstate 280 (I-280) at Rock Island to I-270 south of Alton. The communities along the way include Monmouth (pop. 9,900), Macomb (pop. 18,600), Beardstown (pop. 5,800) and Jerseyville (pop. 8,300). According to IDOT's traffic volume maps (here and here), daily traffic volumes on the corridor range from a low of 1900 to a high of 26,000.

Here's the project description from the website:

The existing US 67 Corridor extends nearly 220 miles from Rock Island south to Alton. The two and four lane corridor improvement costs awarded to date total more than $700 million and $142.6 million in projects are programmed during FY 2008-2013. Of this total, $11.4 million is programmed in FY 2008. The estimated unfunded cost to complete the four-lane sections in the US 67 corridor from Macomb southward to the Alton Bypass exceeds $1.5 billion.

More information here.

Given the traffic numbers in most of the areas in the corridor--a fraction of the traffic volumes on the existing rural interstates--one wonder why IDOT is not using a series of passing lanes rather than a full-fledged four lane expressway configuration to serve this corridor.

I guess it is all too easy, however, for folks in northeastern Illinois to be snide and decry the perceived waste of pouring $1.5 billion into a road that serves a collection of small communities and meanders down the state like a riled up snake. Why is IDOT sinking money into concrete in rural Illinois but devoting years and years of wheel-spinning studies to projects in high-volume corridors like the O'Hare Western Bypass and the Elgin O'Hare Expressway?

Presumably, there must be decent economic and social development rationales for putting a four lane highway in stretches of road carrying 100 vehicles per hour in each direction on average. (I'm told the maximum capacity of a highway lanes is about 2,000 vehicles an hour, at least on interstates. I assume this figure is significantly less on two-lane roads, where passing is restricted.)

That is an issue for another day. In the meantime, IDOT's project corridor websites seem a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

National Infrastructure Bank?

Here's a link to an interesting article on Sarah Goldhagen, an architectural historian, who proposes a national infrastructure bank to help fund and oversee the restoration of the nation's infrastructure.

Goldhagen's analysis of the infrastructure problems is as follows:

As Goldhagen points out, and as any traveler knows, countries in Asia and Europe often do a much better job than we do. In Vienna a couple of years ago - a city that experienced far more disruption in the 20th century than any American city - I was shocked by the superb public transportation system. Yet New York, despite decades of effort, still hasn't got its Second Avenue subway built. Boston can't put together its Urban Ring. Goldhagen contrasts our decline with the success of places that have renewed themselves, like Vancouver, in Canada, and Barcelona.

So what's the answer? Goldhagen has first a diagnosis, then a suggestion.
"The problem," she says, "is that our political world is organized into towns, cities, states, and the federal government, but the practical world is organized differently. We are now a nation of metropolitan regions. The way we govern doesn't fit the way we live."

Metro regions are chopped up into many municipalities, none of which can accomplish much by themselves. They may even bleed across state lines. No branch of government has either the funds or the power to deal with infrastructure - except for one: the federal government.

Her proposed solution is a national infrastructure bank that would function as follows:

It would have a capital budget, like any well-run private institution (and like many nations). It would allocate money over the long haul, pursuing goals that now get sacrificed for short-term advantages, like tax cuts. The agency's purpose - again, like that of a private institution - would be the care, maintenance, and renewal of our society's physical plant.

Is a national infrastructure bank the way out of the fragmentation of infrastructure investment decision making and infrastructure maintenance responsibilities or is it a recipe for Halliburton style public contracting hell?

Transit Funding Alchemy?

Crain's reports that the Governor and some legislative leaders "are talking about a long-term funding plan to bail out Chicago-area mass transit agencies." According to the Governor, the plan will not include a tax on working people, i.e., the sales tax increase that is built into SB 572.

WBEZ' report on the mystery plan includes:

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich says he's backing a new plan to fund mass transit without raising sales taxes. The plan, supported by House Republican Leader Tom Cross, has not been released. Blagojevich declined to give any details.

BLAGOJEVICH: You'll hear about it when we work it out with our... We got a coalition of other legislative leaders that we're working with and I just think it's important for all of us to agree to do it at the same time.

Blagojevich says he wants to announce the mass transit plan with State Senate President Emil Jones. But a spokeswoman for Jones says the president has only heard rumors of the plan.

The smart money at the office is that the mystery plan is to tap into money from new casinos.

An earlier WBEZ report quoted Representative Tom Cross as suggesting that fare increases may be part of the mix: "Cross says it's not unreasonable for the CTA to raise fares since gasoline prices have also gone up."

Information, ideas and speculation (but not snark) welcome.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Take It To The Bank: The Universal Fare Card

The Bay Area is now implementing a universal fare card system called TransLink. When fully implemented in 2010, the TransLink fare card will work on the services provided by 26 transit agencies.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's revved up version of the RTA, is in charge of rolling out Translink. The system has been under active development for years. News reports (e.g., here) indicate that software glitches and other problems have slowed the implementation. Securing the cooperation of all 26 transit agencies has been tough. The cost of the system has grown from $25 million to $130 million.

Despite these challenges, a universal fare card is coming to the Bay Area. TransLink will cover almost 10 times as many transit agencies as it would take to bring a universal fare card to this region. So why doesn't this region have a universal fare card system despite years of promises?

It is reported that at the recent Lipinski Symposium there was general agreement that the reason this region doesn't have a universal fare card system is because the RTA and the service boards cannot agree on who will act as the "bank" for the system. Can this be true? What exactly does it mean to serve as the "bank" for a universal fare card system? Why can't the costs and benefits of serving in that function be apportioned among the RTA and the service boards using some reasonable formula?

Why is having a universal fare card important, anyway? First, such a fare card would allow seamless travel between CTA, Metra and Pace service, increasing ridership and the perceived quality of the transit system. Second, such a fare card would help foster the notion that the public transit system in northeastern Illinois is a single system. This would undermine the current perception that Metra and Pace are for the suburbs and the CTA is for the City, a balkanization that has adverse political and operational consequences.

Third, a universal fare card with associated user accounts is a potentially powerful platform that transit agencies can leverage for a profit. Such a fare card, for example, might morph into a card that commuters could use like a credit card to make purchases. This is what has happened in Hong Kong, for example, where the local transit card--the Octopus card--is used for all sorts of non-transit transactions. The user accounts associated with each fare card could be used to deliver transit subsidies for the needy. For example, a low-income rider could be given ride credits to help ensure that their transportation needs are met, while more prosperous riders pay more through peak-period pricing and distance-based pricing. Finally, there may be cost-savings from switching to electronic fare collection, although these savings may be limited given the high upfront software and hardware costs.

Maybe the RTA should turn loose one of its cost of congestion consultants to examine how much time is wasted each month as people stand in long lines at the train stations to get their monthly Metra passes. Talk about congestion and a pointless waste of time because of a transit agency that stubbornly refuses to adopt electronic fare collection.

If the RTA and the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace cannot figure out who will serve as the bank for this region's universal fare card, then maybe they should outsource the job to TransLink. If the good folks of TransLink can get 26 squabbling transit agencies to adopt a universal fare card, they probably won't mind adding three more to their family.

* * *
Phil Pagano, Metra Executive Director 4/15/07:

Pagano said officials hope to have a working proposal completed within the next 30 days so it could be presented to CTA, Metra and Pace directors. He acknowledged that having better fare coordination among transit agencies has long been a concern of the public.

"If we can work this through, I think it's a good first step" toward providing fare coordination, Pagano said. "Fare coordination and [system] integration are important for our riders."

Source: Chicago Tribune

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Complete Streets Bill Passes--Challenges IDOT To Think Different

Illinois has joined the Complete Streets movement through the adoption of SB 314. The law (pasted in below) provides that "bicycle and pedestrian ways shall be given full consideration in the planning and development of transportation facilities, including the incorporation of such ways into State plans and programs." Within one mile of an urban area, "bicycle and pedestrian ways shall be established in conjunction with the construction, reconstruction, or other change of any State transportation facility."

The new law is an effort to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and to increase the efficiency of the transportation system by better incorporating walking and biking with vehicular transport. It also challenges the deeply entrenched view in many transportation agencies that bicycles and pedestrians only get in the way of effective vehicular transportation, which they view as their only mission.

The devil thus will be in the details of implementing the new law. The law charges the Illinois Department of Transportation with developing design and construction standards for bicycle and pedestrian ways. IDOT, however, was presumably the moving force behind the Governor's amendatory veto of the bill. If IDOT does oppose the new law, will it be able to muster the creativity and open-mindedness to develop standards that will effectively integrate bicycles and pedestrians into our State transportation system?

Proponents of the complete streets bill such as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation thus have their work cut out for them during IDOT's standards-setting process.

* * *
(605 ILCS 5/4-220 new)
Sec. 4-220. Bicycle and pedestrian ways.

(a) Bicycle and pedestrian ways shall be given full
consideration in the planning and development of
transportation facilities, including the incorporation of such
ways into State plans and programs.

(b) In or within one mile of an urban area, bicycle and
pedestrian ways shall be established in conjunction with the
construction, reconstruction, or other change of any State
transportation facility except:
(1) in pavement resurfacing projects that do not widen
the existing traveled way or do not provide stabilized
shoulders; or
(2) where approved by the Secretary of Transportation
based upon documented safety issues, excessive cost or
absence of need.

(c) Bicycle and pedestrian ways may be included in pavement
resurfacing projects when local support is evident or bicycling
and walking accommodations can be added within the overall
scope of the original roadwork.

(d) The Department shall establish design and construction
standards for bicycle and pedestrian ways. Beginning July 1,
2007, this Section shall apply to planning and training
purposes only. Beginning July 1, 2008, this Section shall apply
to construction projects.

Report on Hearing on Illinois Works and Transportation

Here is the link to an article in the State Journal Register describing the testimony relating to transportation at the recent hearing on Illinois Works, the proposed capital funding bill (SB 1110).

Representative Hamos Transit Funding Status Report

Below is the latest from Representative Julie Hamos, the leading proponent of SB 572, the transit funding/RTA reform bill, on the transit funding situation. Note the following points she makes:
  • The capital funding bill that passed the State Senate (Illinois Works) divides transportation funding 10:1 in favor of roads. The previous capital bill (Illinois First) had a 2:1 ratio.
  • The RTA will not accept another short term loan or bailout. (Ed. note--We'll see about that.)
Here is Representative Hamos' update in full:

Transit Update, October 19, 2007

As you know, the clock is ticking toward the “doomsday” scenario on November 4th when the regional transit system will face the first round of service cuts, fare increases and layoffs. CTA, Pace and Metra will have run out of available funding by that date.

What action needs to be taken by the legislature?

In the Illinois House of Representatives: Senate Bill 572 continues to be the comprehensive solution, coupling long-term funding with accountability and reform. Senate Bill 572 was voted on in the House on September 4th but was defeated by 10 votes (the bill needs a 3/5ths vote, or 71 votes, but received only 61). It is currently on “postponed consideration” and can be called for another vote at any time.

Regretfully, only 5 Republicans supported SB 572, although this bill was crafted through an open, collaborative process by our bipartisan House Mass Transit Committee. Rather than voting for the transit bill on its own merits, the bill was “held hostage” by the House Republicans for another agenda: a public works construction program funded by a major new bond.

In the Illinois Senate: The same comprehensive bill as SB 572, with just a few minor changes, has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Cullerton as Senate Amendment #3 to HB 3667. The bill was not called for a vote on September 10 and 11 when the Senate convened in Springfield. Instead, they passed HB 2035, which includes new casinos and gaming revenues to fund a large capital bond program. It also includes a one-time $200 million loan to the regional transit system as a short-term solution to the transit funding crisis. HB 2035 is now pending in the House, but it does not seem likely that we would go along with a one-time loan to fund transit.

The Senate also passed SB 1110 incorporating a $24.6 billion capital budget to fund road programs, school and university construction, early childhood facilities, environmental facilities, local economic development projects, and more. Within SB 1110 is funding for “transit capital”, pegged at $425 million in new state funds – only 1/10th the amount included for roads. This is quite a contrast to the last capital bond program in 1999, when roads received twice as much as transit – not 10 times as much!

A recent public hearing of the House Mass Transit Committee on October 9th reached three conclusions:

(1) The capital bond program passed by the Illinois Senate in SB 1110 is totally inadequate to replace broken-down buses, or fix the CTA “slow zones”, or allow Illinois to compete for federal transit expansion dollars -- even if SB 572 is passed for transit operating budgets.
(2) There are no convenient or easy new funding sources for transit, although increased gasoline taxes or parking space taxes were debated (see testimony of Metropolitan Planning Council with interesting new possibilities). The other funding sources were sufficiently controversial that the modest regional sales tax and Chicago-based real estate transfer tax in SB 572 was validated as the only fair, balanced and regional resolution.
(3) The Regional Transportation Authority will not accept another one-time or short-term loan or bailout. The November 4th “doomsday” deadline is real.

Handouts from the October 9th public hearing are posted on my website:

In the next few weeks, it seems imperative for the four legislative leaders and the Governor to set aside their differences and agree on a plan to move Illinois forward. The plan ideally should include the comprehensive, long-term solution for transit embodied in SB 572 and HB 3667, and it should include a capital bond program that makes necessary investments in the state’s infrastructure, including transit.

The State of Illinois is in the process of tackling a number of significant, serious needs: education, health care, pensions, public works and transit. But only one issue has a looming deadline -- transit. We need civic and regional leaders, transit riders and community residents to actively work to persuade their own legislators, the four legislative leaders and the Governor to take action to save the mass transit system before November 4th.

Thank you for your interest and support.

Rep. Julie Hamos

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Governor Blocking Congestion Pricing In Illinois?

Ed. Note: By now congestion pricing is hardly a new thing, in transportation or in other areas. The basic notion is that you use price to efficiently allocate a high-demand resource. It costs more, for example, to attend a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert than it does your local school's band concert (unless Frances Parker is your local school!). Utilities price their product higher during peak demand period. You pay more for parking during special events than during off hours.

When demand for highway space exceeds supply, price can serve such an allocative function. Pricing can be set dynamically to maximize traffic throughput and travel time reliability. These benefits are not limited to just the private auto. The service offered by public transit buses using the priced route improves significantly because travel times are both faster and more certain on the route.

The federal Department of Transportation has embraced congestion pricing. (FHWA Congestion Pricing Primer here.) The five recent winners of Urban Partnership Program grants, ranging from from $63 million to $355 million each, all promised prompt implementation of congestion pricing programs. In contrast, this region's application didn't even make it out of the first round of the Urban Partnership Program competition because it lacked any credible congestion pricing plan.

Posted in below is a slightly edited report about the recent Lipinski Symposium from someone who currently works in Springfield. Note the bolded discussion indicating that the Governor opposes congestion pricing. If this opposition holds, then over the next few years congestion pricing efforts on major congested State roads and interstates in the State appear doomed to failure. The State can forget about tapping into future federal programs like the UPP designed to encourage implementation of perhaps the most effective way to counter traffic congestion, namely, congestion pricing.

But who needs a few hundred million dollars of federal money and a steady revenue source for transportation purposes anyway?

* * *

Representatives Coulson, and Nekritz attended part of the Symposium. However, there was not much outreach to the legislators for the Symposium. Peter Skosey from MPC was pleased with the nearly 200 people who attended. Many were transportation policy experts. IDOT sent their chief of staff and their planning director. The service boards were represented, along with rail union and rail government liaisons. Planning agencies were in attendance as were lobbyists. The right people needed to be there.

The political environment in Springfield was somewhat of a sore spot throughout the symposium, with presenters taking gentle jabs at the topic throughout the day, until the last panel. [The last panel included several elected officials.]

It was productive in the sense that programs throughout the United States and even Stockholm, Sweden (congestion pricing through referendum) was discussed. There are some viable options out there if only our leaders would simply step back and consider these noteworthy options to save the crippling infrastructure in the State of Illinois.

I felt that William Lipinski along with Chairman Obsterstar were almost pleading with the audience to make things work in Illinois, for state officials to come together. Millions of dollars are out there in earmarks for the taking only, and only if, the State of Illinois gets its act together and come together on this issue.

I've asked the Chief of Staff at IDOT about congestion pricing in the past. I was told that the Governor does not support congestion pricing.

There was also some discussion to the need for raising the federal motor fuel tax by a minimum of 10 cents, not 5 cents (and this was mentioned in at least 3 of the 4 panels). Obsterstar even supported raising the motor fuel tax by a minimum of 10 cents.

I wouldn't say it was a waste of time necessarily. These ideas needed to be discussed.

However, with transit being held hostage in our current political environment, the Chicago region remains doomed.

The only thing I didn't want to hear was Lake County Chairman [Suzi Schmidt] stating the system needed to shut down. I've heard this in Springfield. If I was on the other side I would definitely start protesting the mass transit crisis facing the region. Say, shut down the system one morning to show everyone the effect of fewer buses on the street, etc.; and not wait until November 4th for the first doomsday and January 6th for the second doomsday.

Here are some links to check out: - Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program - A May 2007 report regarding motor fuel tax - Victoria Transport Policy Institute

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lipinski Symposium: Materials Online

Here's the link to the presentation materials from the Lipinski Symposium. Those of us who didn't get the coveted invitation or missed parts of the symposium can play catch up.

I'm promised a full-fledged report on the Symposium in the next day or so from a participant who disagrees with the snarky comments posted thus far. In the meantime check out page 3 of 4 of David Horner's presentation. Then consider how likely it is that the description of SB 572 and its sales tax increase as a long-term operating funding solution for public transit will prove to be correct.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lipinski Symposium: Reactions

The Lipinski Symposium on Transportation was an invitation-only event on Monday designed to encourage Chicago area transportation leaders to think outside the box. Pasted in below are two reports. Add your own in the comments or send them to and I will post them.

Comment #1

The >Lipinski Symposium was pretty much what I expected. There were exhortations from a couple of politicians, William Lipinski and James Oberstar (someone described them as the "bring home the bacon twins"). The panels of experts covered familiar transportation management techniques (e.g., congestion pricing) as if these things had just appeared on tablets on the mountaintop. There were a couple clunkers (e.g., the fellow who was very excited about logistics). At the end there was a panel of politicians who treaded carefully through questions about the current transit funding crisis.

The audience was pretty passive. There were few politicians there to convert to the "progressive" cause. Those that were, such as Representative Julie Hamos, Lake County Board Chairman Suzi Schmidt and DuPage County Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, weren't biting on the ideas of congestion pricing and a tax on parking spacings that were being discussed.

I thought that some of the day might be spent on breakout sessions with the goal of developing a set of principles/priorities that might be adopted, or at least voted upon, by the group. Instead, we were pretty much pumpkins for the day.

* * *

Comment #2


I don't know if you got in the Lipinski symposium. I strapped on a tie and snuck in for the afternoon session (even got a cookie).

What struck me is how male, pale and stale the group was. This is a highly diverse region, but you would never know it from this group. A large majority were white men over 50. There was a smattering of women, maybe 10% in all, and even fewer minorities.

There were some good ideas thrown out during the day, but this group seemed stuck in a Fifties/Sixties time warp. They clearly are oriented (indoctrinated?) to think that minor changes to existing institutions, lots more money, and some engineering fixes will allow Chicago to continue on its merry way.

Have the well dressed tushes of these fellows ever felt a bike seat for a commute? Have concepts like global warming and reducing the carbon footprint penetrated their consciousness? Are they aware of the potential of ride-sharing programs using a mesh network model?

The pivotal moment came when Todd Litman, who is to transportation what Eric Clapton once was to the electric guitar (i.e., god), was speaking. Litman outlined why reducing vehicle miles traveled is by far the preferred solution to our transportation system woes. This approach generates the most benefits--congestion relief, accident reduction, environmental improvements, etc. Litman then laid out some strategies involving little or no new infrastructure, such as pricing insurance on a VMT basis and a tax on parking spaces, that together could reduce VMT by 20 percent.

The audience was dumbfounded. These guys clearly didn't get it. Their brains were spinning because they can't think outside of what Litman called the reductionist mindset that says that only a transportation solution can solve what is being perceived as a transportation problem. The more cynical among them were probably thinking that Litman's approach will never fly because there are not enough construction contracts involved.

I'm sorry, but all these good ideas were largely wasted on a group that is clearly set in its ways and fighting hard to preserve the status quo. I never realized what such a stodgy group is the public's custodian/advocates for our transportation system. Scary.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The RTA Sales Tax And Its Limits: Lack Of Diversification

The following comment to a recent post on the risks associated with fixing the current transit funding problem with more of the same--namely, a hike in the RTA's sales tax--struck me as right on:

Justin said...

An excellent argument for the inadequacy of the sales tax. Here's another argument against SB572: it puts all the RTA's eggs in one basket.

Practically, any good investor will distribute her capital across a number of stocks or bonds to spread her risk, and transit agencies are no exception. Theoretically, public transportation provides measurable benefits to a variety of beneficiaries, implying that a "rational" or tailored subsidy structure would include a similar variety of revenue sources. Most agencies, like the RTA boards, have some control over their fare revenues, yet depend on others for the rest. To spread the risk of one funding source going sour, transit agencies should seek to derive major revenues from at least two or three different sources, preferably even more.

For instance, the MBTA gets revenues from roughly two sources: state sales taxes, and local assessments which are largely paid from property taxes. Many European transit agencies' funds originate from multiple levels of governmental jurisdictions, many of which share revenues and which are derived from a mix of Value-Added Tax, income tax, and business taxes. New York's operating subsidies come from a wide variety of taxes and jurisdictions ultimately based on the real estate market, businesses, petroleum use, and a sales tax in southern Connecticut, suburban New York State, the outer boroughs, and Manhattan itself. (There's an even an old post on this blog somewhere about the variety of MTA's subsidies, I think). [Old post here.]

By contrast, excessive reliance on a single source for operating subsidies is theoretically less than ideal, and risky and frustrating in practice. By continuing to rely solely on the sales tax, the RTA may soon regressing to doomsday.

Indeed, other robust transit agencies have been able to respond to cutbacks in subsidy from one source by substituting other sources. In Europe, these shifts often took place in the context of political decentralization, where the devolution of fiscal autonomy from central governments to regions appears to have caused an increased level of transit capital funding. U.S. transit agencies have responded to the cutback in federal operating subsidies with gradually higher state and local funds.

To echo Davey's comment, discretionary spending on consumer goods may decline quickly during an economic slowdown, yet cities rely on public transit to provide low-cost mobility even in hard times. In addition, sales taxes tend to be regressive, exacting a higher proportion of income from those least able to pay.

I agree with the Moderator that a long-term funding solution should look beyond the sales tax for theoretical and practical reasons. Taxes on real estate, parking, or (even better), road tolling are the way to go. Or the RTA comes hat in hand in a few years to a populace that won't want to hear it.

Don't Forget The Capital Funding Side

With all the hullabaloo over increasing operating funding for public transit via SB 572 we should not forget the issue of capital funding for transit. Chicago Metropolis 2020 recently sent the General Assembly a letter, co-signed by a group of business/community leaders, focusing attention on the capital funding bill (SB 1110).

The letter states that the proposed capital funding for transit is inadequate. (At today's Lipinski Symposium Representative Julie Hamos said that the ratio of transit to highway capital funding in the bill is a paltry 1:10.) The letter characterizes SB 1110 as a "grab bag" of projects that "lacks a coherent sense of purpose or direction."

Read it here.

Transportation Lessons from Massachusetts: Integration and Accountability v. Diffusion and Chaos

Note: The following is a guest column from Paras Bhayani. Please submit guest columns to

When thinking about transportation issues in Illinois, it can often be useful to look around the country to see what other American cities are doing to improve their transit systems and how they are working to place transit in the broader context of regional transportation.

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of cities from which Chicago can draw meaningful lessons. The American cities with transit systems like Chicago's—buses and non-surface trains in the city, commuter rail for the suburbs—are New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston. While many readers might be familiar with the excellent networks of New York and D.C., Boston—a city with normal levels of tourism and federal funding—can serve as a more useful model in terms of how it organizes and thinks about transportation.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) is responsible for all transit in Boston and its suburbs. Much like the CTA, the MBTA operates a subway system in Boston and its inner suburbs—cities like Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton. The MBTA also operates commuter rail lines that extend to the limits of the metropolitan region—Worcester, Lowell, and Providence, R.I.—much like Metra does in Chicago. Finally, the MBTA—yes, the same agency—runs buses in many of the suburbs, though the far-flung parts of the metropolitan region (Worcester) have their own bus systems.

Organizationally, Illinois has much to learn from Massachusetts. The latter abolished county governments in late-1990s—for those following the Stroger chronicles, this doesn't sound like a bad idea for Illinois, but I digress—meaning that the composition of the MBTA board of directors is removed from local county boards chiefs and/or blocs of commissioners.

The board of directors, appointed by the governor and serving coterminous with him, ratifies all planning and budget decisions for the MBTA. The board also chooses the general superintendent—the effective czar of the region's transit system. The effect is that the system is highly-centralized, integrated, and accountable; all blame for MBTA's failings can be laid at the feet of the governor and his superintendent.

I would be the first to admit that talent—and not just institutions—matters a great deal. Massachusetts has benefited recently from a reformist, Huberman-like general superintendent who has made substantial capital improvements to the system. But anyone who has taken a serious look at Illinois transit would acknowledge that diffuse authority across the service boards and a lack of accountability—the buck clearly does not stop with either Daley or Blagojevich—have been two key factors in creating the mess that is Chicago transit.

The centrality and cohesiveness of the Massachusetts transportation agencies will be taken to a new level if a plan being crafted by Governor Deval Patrick, a native of Chicago's south side, is enacted. Under Patrick's plan, the boards of both the Mass Pike—the Illinois equivalent of IDOT—and the MBTA would be abolished, and a new "Massachusetts Transportation Authority" would be responsible for all transportation in the state.

Like the MBTA and the Massachusetts Turnpike today, the board of MassTrans would be appointed by the governor. But the new agency would have an exceptionally large mandate (everything that affects how people move on the surface) and exceptionally wide budgetary authority (every dollar spent on transportation). The massive centralization of power within the governor's office has no precedent in the United States.

While the plan is in its early stages, an agency like MassTrans would allow for a great deal more coordination in transit and road construction—projects like the Dan Ryan median could become commonplace—as well as a tighter integration of surface transport with the region's three airports. The new agency would also be able to refinance the Commonwealth's transportation debt at more favorable rates, thereby reducing long-term borrowing costs and making new bonds—and new expansions—less costly.

The bold thinking evidenced by this plan is necessary given that Massachusetts must invest $19 billion over the next 20 years to simple maintain current standards of performance.

If IDOT, which is in better financial shape than the transit system, were merged with the RTA and its three sub-agencies (CTA, Metra, Pace), the sky would be the limit for synergy, greater efficiency, and improved coordination. Such a superagency would not just allow for broader strategic thinking, but could use its fiscal power to focus dollars on the weakest areas of the region's transportation grid. One could imagine a case where tolls or gasoline taxes are used, for the first time, to subsidize transit. And for those of us who would love to see congestion pricing implemented in the Loop, determining what to do with those dollars—and how to reduce the strain on suburban and peripheral city residents—is a job that could only be handled well by an agency with a broad focus and a broad budgetary portfolio.

I want to take care not to glorify too much the state of transit in Massachusetts. To be sure, the region faces challenges, many of them stemming from former Governor Mitt Romney's decision to drop billions of dollars of legacy costs from the "Big Dig"—a project that principally benefited drivers—onto the back of the MBTA. As a result, the MBTA is currently spending 27 percent of its budget, or its entire take from fares, on debt service, and hiked subway fares from $1.25 to $1.70 this past January.

Still, it's worth noting that in a city as expensive as Boston, the subway is still less expensive than in Chicago. And politicians seem to be getting the message: In addition to Patrick's massive reform bill, which has not yet been unveiled, legislators from Cambridge and Somerville are pushing a bill that would make the Commonwealth responsible for $2.9 billion of the MBTA's $5.7 billion in debt—an effort to stave off fare increases and allow more money to be spent on maintenance. The bill has already received the blessing of both legislative leaders and the governor.


Paras Bhayani, a native of Palos Heights, Ill., currently lives in Cambridge, Mass. He has long been active with the Illinois and Massachusetts chapters of the Sierra Club, and closely follows transit politics and politics more generally in both states.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Can The RTA Impose A Parking Space Tax?

A meme is starting in the comments to a previous post on a parking space tax to the effect that the RTA already has the authority to impose such a tax. This is based on the recent testimony (pg. 3) of Peter Skosey of the Metropolitan Planning Council that the "RTA has long had the authorization to levy a property tax on commercial parking spaces in the region."

Hold on to your shorts. It appears that Skosey misspoke. The RTA cannot currently impose a parking tax and the parking tax referenced in the RTA Act is not the kind of broad-based tax on non-residential parking spaces that will do the most good from a transit/land use perspective.

Section 4.03(d) of the current RTA Act provides in relevant part as follows:

(d) The Board may impose a motor vehicle parking tax upon the privilege of parking motor vehicles at off‑street parking facilities in the metropolitan region at which a fee is charged, and may provide for reasonable classifications in and exemptions to the tax, for administration and enforcement thereof and for civil penalties and refunds thereunder and may provide criminal penalties thereunder, the maximum penalties not to exceed the maximum criminal penalties provided in the Retailers' Occupation Tax Act.
. . .

As used in this paragraph, the term "parking facility" means a parking area or structure having parking spaces for more than 2 vehicles at which motor vehicles are permitted to park in return for an hourly, daily, or other periodic fee, whether publicly or privately owned, but does not include parking spaces on a public street, the use of which is regulated by parking meters.

First, this provision appears to authorize only a tax on paid parking ("motor vehicle parking tax upon the privilege of parking"), such as the per parking transaction tax already imposed by the City of Chicago. As outlined in the previous post, this kind of tax is much less beneficial than a tax on all non-residential parking spaces, regardless of whether parking fees are charged.

Second, the RTA Act forbids the RTA from imposing the parking tax set out in section 4.03(d). This is because the RTA has imposed its sales tax pursuant to sections 4.03(e) - 4.03(g). Section 4.03(p) of the Act provides as follows:

(p) At no time shall a public transportation tax or motor vehicle parking tax authorized under paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) of this Section be in effect at the same time as any retailers' occupation, use or service occupation tax authorized under paragraphs (e), (f) and (g) of this Section is in effect.

In other words, having imposed the sales tax pursuant to 4.03(e) - 4.03(g) the RTA cannot impose the parking tax provided for in section 4.03(d) or, for that matter, a tax of up 5 percent of the gross receipts from the sale of fuel (4.03(b)).

4.03(p) goes on the provide that once the RTA has opted to adopt a sales tax, it lacks the power to switch back to a parking tax and/or fuel tax:

(p) At no time shall a public transportation tax or motor vehicle parking tax authorized under paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) of this Section be in effect at the same time as any retailers' occupation, use or service occupation tax authorized under paragraphs (e), (f) and (g) of this Section is in effect.

In other words, having imposed its sales tax the RTA cannot now add on a parking (or fuel) tax. Section 4.03(p) goes on to forbid the RTA from switching from a sales tax to parking and fuel taxes:

Once any tax authorized by paragraphs (e), (f) or (g) is imposed the Board may not reimpose taxes as authorized in paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) of the Section unless any tax authorized by paragraphs (e), (f) or (g) of this Section becomes ineffective by means other than an ordinance of the Board.

It would be easy to draft an amendment to the RTA Act to allow the imposition of a tax on all non-residential parking spaces even with the sales tax in place. Proponents of SB 572 seem unwilling to consider such an alternative, unfortunately.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Puzzling Persistence Of The Sales Tax Increase As The Preferred Funding Solution

Tuesday's apparently desultory hearing by the House Mass Transit Committee into alternatives to an increase in the RTA sales tax and the continued efforts to push for passage of SB 572 with that tax increase in place prompts the question--what is so great about relying on the sales tax as the primary source of transit funding in Northeastern Illinois?

As the CTA points out, its sales tax funding base has failed to keep pace with inflation over the past twenty years:

CTA has grappled with a steep decline in inflation-adjusted funding levels. CTA’s public funding for mainline bus and rail operations trailed inflation by approximately one percent every year. If funding since 1987 had kept even with inflation, the CTA would have received cumulatively $1.6 billion more to operate its buses and trains.

The situation has been deteriorating in recent years:

The CTA’s public funding is growing at a much slower rate than related expenses. Public funding levels only increased by four percent over the past five years and trailed inflation, which increased by 11.3 percent in the same time period. By comparison, CTA has also experienced substantial cost increases in fuel, materials (due to a lack of capital funds) and security.

If that is not enough, the RTA is reducing the CTA's public funding mark for 2008 by $14 million compared to this year's mark, surely a reflection of larger problems with the adequacy of the RTA sales tax as a funding source.

The CTA accounts for about 80 percent of the transit ridership in the region. Pace's financial condition is no better and it is on the path to a doomsday of its own. Even Metra, which for years was living high on the hog with more sales tax money than it could spend on operations, is making dark threats of a 20 percent fare increase and major service reductions. Clearly, the existing sales tax funding base is insufficient to serve the current needs of the transit system.

The inadequacy of the sales tax as the near-exclusive funding base for public transit in this region is illustrated by a simple fact. The RTA system relies on the same sales tax funding base that it did in 1985. Yet, even though that system now carries 20 percent fewer passengers than it did then, it is in a financial crisis. In other words, the same sales tax base cannot support a transit system that is 20 percent smaller than it was 20 years ago.

The inadequacy of the sales tax base is even more dramatic when considering the transit system's market share. Given the growing and sprawling population in the region, transit's market share declined even more sharply than its 20 percent decline in ridership. Clearly, the current sales tax funding base could not support transit's more robust 1987 market share if that market share magically reappeared since it cannot support even today's shrunken market share.

There is nothing wrong in the short term to increasing an already inadequate sales tax. Yet, the same factors that have made the growth in the existing sales tax inadequate will continue to work on the increased sales tax as well. The same cost factors--labor, fuel, pension, security--and possibly a few others that have outpaced the growth in sales tax revenue will almost certainly eat up the sales tax increase before too long. SB 572, if enacted, only postpones the day of reckoning resulting from the region's over reliance on the sales tax to fund public transit.

The real estate transfer tax built in SB 572 is a good starting point to diversifying the public transit funding base. Maybe that tax should be expanded throughout the six-county region under the rationale that travelers and property owners in all counties benefit from the congestion relief and other benefits associated with transit. A parking lot tax, increased auto registration fee, congestion pricing, a gas tax increase, and the like make up a menu of alternatives to a sales tax increase (or supplements to a smaller sales tax increase).

Let's for the moment assume, however, that SB 572 passes as is. How long will it be before the service boards and the RTA eat up the incremental sales tax revenue generated by the tax increase and start rolling out the next set of doomsday scenarios?

Predictions please.

Savage Shove: Is SB 572 A Preemptive Counter-Reformation?

If his recent Tribune column is any indication, Professor Ian Savage of Northwestern University is trying to become to the transportation community what "Savage Love" columnist Dan Savage is for the rest of us--a source of trenchant, iconoclastic and often right-on advice.

Professor Savage's argument distills down to this. The current public transit funding crisis and its proposed solution (SB 572) is much more about preserving the existing institutional structure than it is about maximizing the quality and quantity of transit service in Northeastern Illinois. The SB 572 fight in his view is about preserving the same level of service by the same publicly owned and operated service providers--Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace with the RTA perched precariously (and expensively) in its financial oversight role.

Savage points out how outsourcing some transit service through competitive contracting could yield more transit service at less cost:

The situation in Chicago is not unique. Throughout the developed world, the introduction of transit subsidies in the 1970s was accompanied by a run-up in costs. A political backlash ensued with efforts to introduce competition into the market. In a few places, such as the provincial cities in England, this has taken the extreme form of deregulation and competition on the street. Much more common, and more relevant to Chicago, is a competitive contracting model that was adopted in London in 1985.

If Chicago followed London's model, the existing CTA bus division would be broken up into smaller units, and the assets would be sold to companies in the private sector. These companies would then compete against each other and against existing private sector firms to win the contracts to operate individual bus routes. Typically, the contracts are for three to five years. And if a route isn't making money, bids are decided based on who requires the least amount of subsidy. While operations would be in private hands, the CTA would set the routes, specify how frequently the buses run, what color they are painted, and what fares are charged. The CTA would continue to exist, but as a marketing and procurement organization.

It may surprise many readers to learn that the iconic red buses in Britain's capital have not been owned by the government for more than 10 years. Yet, as visitors will testify, the network is marketed as a seamless system, with electronic fare card options that Chicagoans can only dream of. This form of organization has found favor in Scandinavia, Australasia, South America, and, rather ironically, the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Large multinational companies have developed to meet this maturing market. Some of these companies are already active in the United States, owning extensive school bus holdings and Greyhound Line Inc.

Another option might be a taxi-like system allowing licensed jitney vans to provide service on routes that CTA and Pace may be abandoning in January if the status quo is not preserved. Such vans would be tied into the nascent real-time bus locator systems. They would be allowed to charge market prices and try alternatives to the CTA's big bus/big street model (e.g., premium priced door-to-door service).

The fact that no transportation agency is giving serious consideration to alternatives to the current transit service delivery and institutional models lends credence to Savage's argument. Rather than being a "liberal" attempt to preserve vital transit service to transit dependent communities, Savage implies that the Moving Beyond Congestion/SB 572 effort is a profoundly conservative effort to preserve a status quo that delivers significantly less transit service than might be obtained using a different operating model that features a trimmed down public transit institutional structure.

For this most troubling and challenging analysis, Professor Savage should stay away from the windows if he attends Monday's Lipinski Symposium on Transportation Policy. He might find himself the victim of a savage shove from one of the ranks of the many who are fighting so hard to preserve the transportation status quo.

Biting The Hand That Feeds You--Republican Sues RTA

The RTA long has been viewed by many as a Republican/suburban preserve. It was foisted on the City of Chicago early in the Harold Washington administration, when the City was divided (and weakened) politically and the CTA was desperate for cash.

The provisions of the RTA Act were stacked in favor of the collar counties and remain so to this day. Three examples. First, RTA Board seats are allocated based on population rather than transit ridership or financial contribution to the system. This approach guarantees collar county representation in excess of their contribution to and consumption of transit. It created no incentive for the collar counties to either adopt land-use policies that would generate transit use more than their default model of transit-hostile sprawl or increase their financial support for the region's transit system.

Second, the RTA sales tax rate in the collar counties was and is only one-quarter the rate in Cook County. Third, the seats on the Metra Board are allocated based on morning boardings, which of course means that the suburban counties control the commuter rail system that is of vital importance to the City of Chicago.

For years, the primary goal of the RTA administrations appeared to be to protect and expand the Metra system. The sales tax funding formula delivered more operating subsidies to Metra than Metra was able to spend, so Metra was able to convert millions of dollars of operating subsidies each year into capital expenditures. The RTA also allocated a disproportionate share of capital dollars to Metra, which has resulted in the CTA system infrastructure being in much worst shape than the Metra system. The CTA also faced a structural funding deficit on the operating side because its sales tax base was not keeping up with inflation. For years, the RTA resisted all efforts to revisit the funding formula, protecting Metra's privileged status.

If critics are to be believed, the RTA itself even was a source of patronage jobs, consulting contracts and RTA Board seats for State and DuPage County Republican allies. It certainly is indicative of the RTA's commitment to public transit that one of its long-standing Board members was a prominent opponent of the formation of the RTA and presumably of the ideals of regional transit.

That was then. Now we have the odd specter of Andy Martin, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senator in 2008, suing the RTA because it accepted the short-term bailout offered by the Governor to stave off transit doomsday until November 4th.

The pro se lawsuit is Martin v. Blagojevich, et al., 2007 MR 001310 (DuPage Cty.). It was filed on September 14, 2007. (Copy sent upon request.)

The bare bones complaint alleges that the Governor engineered the advance of funds "to satisfy the CTA's need for cash," neglecting to mention that Pace especially also has relied on these advanced funds to stave off its doomsday for its suburban riders. The gist of the complaint is as follows:

The governing statute mandates that the RTA operate in a "reasonable and prudent manner." The borrowing of money form [sic] 2007, [sic] to fund deficits in 2007, without nay [sic] assurance of repayment is irrational, illogical and contrary to any concept of reason and prudence, and therefore violative of the governing statute and the Illinois Constitution.

This lawsuit is unlikely to gain any traction, even in the favorable confines of the DuPage County court system. (Readers, please email me any subsequent filings so I can avoid a repeat trek to Wheaton.) Nor does the lawsuit appear to have had much of an impact so far on the court of public opinion.

There is, however, something strangely fascinating, even satisfying, about seeing a Republican sue the RTA. It is like a real life demonstration of biting the hand that feeds you!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Parking Space Tax: Is It Really Such A Bolshevist Fantasy?

It appears that Tuesday's Mass Transit Committee hearing into alternatives to the sales tax increase built into SB 572 was a bust. I wasn't an eyewitness, but it seems the transit agency representatives and other interested parties came to bury rather than praise possible alternatives to an increase in the regressive RTA sales tax, whose limitation as a funding base is as evident as the current transit funding crisis.

Per the Chicago Tribune article, a tax on parking spaces, an idea that had created some buzz in the days leading up to the hearing, lacked an effective advocate and was treated like it was the fevered fantasy of an unreconstructed Bolshevik:

The alternative tax proposals, however, elicited no apparent support from lawmakers or civic groups at the hearing. No sooner was the parking-space tax proposal raised than it drew withering fire from civic groups and organizations representing retail merchants and manufacturers, who labeled it a levy on jobs and an extension of the property tax.

Skeptical lawmakers also raised numerous questions, such as who should pay the tax -- owners or users of property -- and how it would be collected. The questions remained unanswered, largely because such a tax has never been enacted elsewhere, officials said.

Two observations. First, the zeal with which transit funding advocates push a sales tax increase via SB 572 is puzzling. The RTA funding system has been based primarily on a regional sales tax for over two decades. The current funding crisis indicates that such heavy reliance on the sales tax at the exclusion of other funding sources is a bad idea. Raising the RTA sales tax may push off this structural funding problem for a few years, but even with the increase it will be deja vu all over again in the few years with more doomsday scenarios and the like.

Successful transit systems like the New York MTA have much more diversified funding sources. The Governor's opposition to an RTA sales tax increase but professed willingness to consider other options gives transit funding proponents a chance to diversify the public transit funding base in this region. They are squandering that opportunity by holding fast to SB 572 as drafted.

Second, a parking space tax to provide transit funding did not get a fair hearing. The statement by unnamed "officials" that "such a tax has never been enacted elsewhere" was false.

As capably outlined by Todd Litman in an article entitled "Parking Taxes: Evaluating Options and Impacts," a tax on parking spaces has been enacted in Vancouver to help fund its transit agency. Litman outlines parking space taxes in several Australian cities. There also are recent news reports of parking space tax initiatives underway in numerous places in Great Britain. Again, I wasn't at the Committee meeting so I hesitate to point fingers, but it was inaccurate for these "officials" to signal to the Committee that a parking space tax was untested if in fact they did so.

The parking space tax has some merits that bear serious consideration. In his article, Litman outlines two general kinds of parking taxes. The first and more common form of parking tax is imposed on commercial parking, typically a percentage or flat fee tacked on top of parking charges. The City of Chicago has imposed just such a tax. The second and for current purposes more interesting kind of parking tax is imposed on a range of non-residential parking spaces. The determination of the amount of parking spaces subject to tax generally is done as part of the property tax assessment process.

According to Litman the commercial parking tax has at least two undesirable consequences. First, it puts city centers with their paid parking and added-on tax at a competitive disadvantage against outlying areas with free parking and no tax. Second, the tax makes free parking more valuable on a comparative basis and stimulates the creation of more parking spaces in areas where some parking is priced and taxed.

In contrast, a tax on parking spaces that is applied widely to non-residential parking puts all areas in a region on a more level playing field. According to Litman, a per-space parking tax also:

encourages property owners to reduce parking supply (particularly seldom-used spaces) and manage their parking supply more efficiently, and it encourages pricing of parking. As a result, it encourages more compact, accessible, multi-modal land use patters and reduces sprawl. Its cost burden is more evenly distributed.

Free parking offered by employers is a major contributor to travel by car during peak travel periods when traffic congestion is endemic. A tax on parking spaces encourages employers to offer less parking and/or to price parking. Such a tax would also encourage employers to take advantage of existing employer-administered programs that allow employees to get a substantial tax break by purchasing transit tickets using pre-tax wages. These programs (e.g., here, here and here) allow employers to shift employees out of their cars and the now more expensive (because taxed) parking spaces and into the transit system. The revenue from the parking space tax helps fund the increased transit usage. It's a virtuous circle between tax and transit use in a way that the much more broadly based sales tax can never achieve.

Litman's article thus demonstrates that a regional tax on parking spaces is not a crazy Bolshivist idea, as the recent hearing seemed bent on establishing at the expense of both the facts and the putative merits of such a tax. He will be in Chicago on Monday to participate as a panelist in the Lipinksi Symposium on Transportation Policy. Maybe Litman will be prove to be a Gorbachev to our transportation system apparatchiks, whose approach to our transportation system challenges sometimes seems positively Brezhnev-like in nature.

I-70 Project: More Background

Small world department. On Tuesday this blog covered the mid-September announcement by the FHWA that a team consisting of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri had won a Corridor of the Future grant to study truck-only lanes on I-70 through these states.

On Friday the Tribune finally covered the story or, to be more accurate, reprints an Associated Press article that relied upon a story in the Indianapolis Star.

The Star article is more complete than the Tribune article, which I guess is appropriate since Indiana not Illinois is the moving force between this project.

Countdown To The Lipinski Symposium

The exclusive, by-invitation-only, hottest-ticket-in-town Lipinski Symposium on Transportation Policy is on Monday. You can download a program and reading list here.

The symposium is supposed to be webcast through a link on the Northwestern University Infrastructure Technology Institute webpage. Such a link is nowhere to be found. But if your taste in entertainment is watching our local transportation elite respond to contemporary transportation management/funding ideas (e.g., red-faced hoots of "Mais Non! No congestion pricing in our town" and vigorous waving of placards "SB 572 or Death") then try to tune in Monday morning. The phone number of the Infrastructure Technology Institute is 847-491-8165. Bug 'em if the webcast link isn't up by then.

Thanks to a kind reader for these links, which are tucked into one of the highly coveted invitations.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Win For Transportation Team

The State's transportation team has been notably unsuccessful in tapping into federal dollars for innovative transportation programs. (Survey here.) That sorry record makes a recent win all the sweeter.

The FHWA recently announced that the proposal by a group consisting of Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri was one of six winning proposals in the FHWA interstate highway "Corridors of the Future" program. According to the FHWA:

The proposals were selected for their potential to use public and private resources to reduce traffic congestion within the corridors and across the country. The concepts include building new roads and adding lanes to existing roads, building truck-only lanes and bypasses, and integrating real-time traffic technology like lane management that can match available capacity on roads to changing traffic demands.

Illinois et al. will get $5 million to develop a plan for the I-70 corridor. The FHWA describes the plan as follows:

This project proposes dedicated and segregated truck lanes along I-70 from the Interstate 435 beltway on the eastern part of Kansas City, Missouri to the Ohio/West Virginia border near Bridgeport, Ohio/Wheeling, West Virginia.

The concept proposes adding four dedicated truck lanes to the existing infrastructure, two in each direction, with at least one interchange per county providing access to the truck lanes and includes, conceptually, truck staging areas. These lanes present the opportunity to pilot size and weight increases on a facility dedicated to trucks. The dedicated truck lanes are seen as a way to reduce congestion, improve safety, and offset the maintenance costs of general purpose lanes.

One can only hope that the I-70 team consider some innovative approaches, including leveraging the Illinois I-PASS platform to use tolling to raise money to build and maintain the truck-only lanes and, perhaps, even the entire I-70 corridor. One can envision the truck-only lanes being available only to trucks that have advanced safety equipment, such as adaptive cruise control and out-of-lane warning signals. This safety equipment plus dedicated truck lanes might allow higher truck speeds, a money-saving approach for which the trucking industry would be willing to pay a fair price in tolls.

To be fair, it appears from the FHWA's description of the project that Indiana is the lead partner in the I-70 group. It is a sad reflection on this State's transportation team that Illinois has become the "tag-along" state to Indiana of all places when it comes to innovative transportation projects. Nevertheless, a win is a win.

Monday, October 8, 2007

New Funding Sources--Quick Ideas

Representative Hamos has issued a challenge to identify public transit funding sources other than an increase in the regional sales tax that the Governor has pledged to veto. Many of the comments thus far have been of the crackpot "tax the Machine" variety. Here's a few quick ideas before I attend to the chores.

Real Estate Transfer Tax: The Governor's opposition to SB 572 seems focused more on the proposed sale tax increase than on the imposition of a real estate transfer tax in the City of Chicago. The proposed real estate transfer tax covering all of the City of Chicago thus remains. The tax is extended to the collar counties in a limited fashion, applying only to real estate located within one mile of a CTA or Metra train line that is in operation or identified as a project in the FTA's New Starts program (e.g., STAR Line). Such a tax recognizes that public transit rail investments increase property values in the surrounding area and captures a small portion of that increase. Yield: $150 million.

Parking Lot Tax: For reasons that will be covered in a later post, a tax on parking spaces might make good sense. The RTA estimates that a $100/year tax on unpaid commercial parking spaces alone would raise $100 million. There may be better approaches as well. Such a tax promotes more efficient use of parking spaces, which has positive environmental benefits (parking lots have terrible environmental consequences and are empty most of the time). Such a tax encourages employers to provide "Commuter Choice" tax benefits to employees--allowing employees to buy transit using pre-tax dollars at a substantial saving and allowing employers to reduce their investment in parking spaces. Yield: $100 million.

Vehicle Registration Fee: Cars in the six-county region impose a cost that they generally don't elsewhere in the State, namely, they add to congestion that is adversely affecting the region's--and hence the State's--economy. Thus, vehicles in the six county region pay a higher registration fee. According to the RTA, a mere $10 increase raises $50 million. Let's add a $30 fee and raise $150 million. It is a condition of registration that each car in the six-county region have an I-PASS (see below). Yield: $150 million.

Bridge Program: The Illinois State Tollway would be directed to install I-PASS toll collection points on bridges on state highways and the interstates (to the extent allowed by federal law) over major rivers (e.g., Fox, Des Plaines, Chicago). After deducting its fully loaded costs the Tollway would turn the money over to the RTA. The net proceeds would be distributed as follows: (a) one-third goes to a fund dedicated for the repair, rehabilitation and replacement of highway bridges; (b) one-third goes for transit; and (c) one-third goes to the municipality or municipalities in which the bridge is located for local highway or transit (e.g., demand response service) purposes. Local governments could toll other bridges in their jurisdiction if (a) the RTA approved of the toll rate as consistent with regional bridge toll rates and (b) the proceeds were shared as described above.

The bridge program provides a framework for congestion pricing and a steadily increasing revenue stream as more cars over more bridges get tolled. Raising money for bridge repairs is a relatively easy sell these days, after the Minneapolis bridge collapse. The fact that the locals would get a cut of the bridge tolls would help make the program more palatable in the trenches. Yield: Substantial. Potentially several hundred million dollars each year.

These four approaches to raising money are much more closely tied to transportation than a sales tax increase. The real estate transfer tax captures a portion of the value generated by transit investment and service. The parking lot tax passes on to property owners and ultimately drivers the externalities associated with parking lots and, by extension, driving (e.g., runoff from parking lots). The same holds true with an increase in the vehicle registration fee. The bridge tolling program allows the region to develop an infrastructure for congestion pricing, possibly the most effective tool of traffic management, as well as fund key infrastructure, transit, and locally-run transportation programs.