Tuesday, December 11, 2007


It was a fun sojourn.

Thanks for reading, cussin' and discussin'.

I learned a lot.

Hopefully, there will be a transit system left if and when I return.

Monday, December 10, 2007

GHG: Land Use vs. Transit

At the recent Metropolitan Planning Council roundtable featuring Reed Ewing (summarized here) someone in the audience asked the question when are we going to stop providing an infrastructure platform--e.g., roads, sewers--for sprawl-like development in exurban areas as a sort of god-given right to developers and their local government enablers. There was a pained silence in the room at this idea--which smacks of taking some land-use authority from local governments and even the notion of an urban growth boundary in this region--and then a round of cynical murmurs from the 75 or so representatives from Chicago area transportation/land-use agencies.

Reed Ewing intervened before the poor questioner was washed out of the room in a tsunami of cynicism. His statement was to the effect that he expects changes to come extremely quickly and unexpectedly in our land-use and transportation practices. In his view, the growing evidence of climate change because of increased greenhouse gases that is perceived by the average person coupled with fears about the future if GHGs are not held in check will prompt rapid change.

I wonder if the historians among us agree with Ewing that changes in our land-use and transportation practices will be swift and far-reaching when this country becomes fully aware of the impact of global warming and the need to reduce GHG emissions. Is the transition from the horse and buggy to the private auto a model of such sudden and drastic change? If we do see a quick transformation, is it likely to be in the direction of pedestrian friendly urban villages nearly everywhere, as Ewing prescribes, or will people (and their developer/local government enablers) work together to use new technologies to extend sprawl-like development patterns, as seems to be the case over the past several decades? Is Ewing a prophet or just another planning/transit guru hoping for the birth of the planner's version of utopia?

In his talk Ewing made relatively scant mention of transit, focusing instead on development patterns that will reduce VMT through shorter trips between destinations and more opportunities to walk/bike. It is quite possible that Ewing believes that building communities with greater population densities and more mixed uses is more likely to rein in VMTs than attempting to increase public transit service in exurban areas (e.g., STAR Line).

So, one more set of questions: If you had $1 billion to spend and wanted to reduce congestion and air pollution in Northeastern Illinois most effectively would you spend the money expanding the public transit system or building "in-fill" mixed use developments around existing transit assets? Is it possible that land-use measures that reduce average trip lengths and promote walking/biking will do more for the region in terms of slowing the growth of GHG emissions than an expansion of the public transit system?

BLT For Sustenance

The Business Leaders for Transportation, an affiliate of the Metropolitan Planning Council, periodically sends out a good listing of local and national articles about transportation issues. I've found it to be a good resource. I believe that you are added to the list when you sign up here.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Representative Hamos: Coal In Her Stocking This Year?

Representative Julie Hamos has yoked her star to reforming and better funding public transit in northeastern Illinois. She led the House Mass Transit Committee through a series of hearings on transit issues that stretched over several years. She guided SB 572 through the twists and turns of the legislative process. When it became clear that SB 572 didn't have the votes, she took a deep breath announced her support of a rival bill, but it too failed to pass. As indicated by her latest communication to the public on transit issues, reprinted below, she now is advocating pushing for completion of a comprehensive state capital bill in order to secure passage of some sort of transit reform/funding package.

Do we think Representative Hamos is going to get her wish of a transit bill before 2007 ends or is she getting a lump of coal in her stocking this holiday season?

* * *


The General Assembly and Governor still have not resolved the upcoming transit funding crisis, and the clock is again ticking toward a doomsday scenario that is likely to be worse in 2008 than this year.

On November 28, we were called into special session by the Governor to consider transit funding. During the previous week both Republican Leader Cross and Governor Blagojevich had endorsed a different funding mechanism for transit than the funding that had been contained in my comprehensive bill, SB 572.

The transit funding in the Cross-Blagojevich plan was incorporated in House Amendment #2 to SB 307, and called for a vote. This funding would be a diversion of the gasoline sales tax collected in our region – about $385 million (combined with ADA paratransit funding from the state for a $440 million total). In addition, downstate transit would receive a higher reimbursement rate.

In this approach the combined $440 million for regional transit would be paid directly from the state budget. That's because gasoline sales taxes currently are deposited into the state treasury and used for state needs. Legislators expressed concern that there was no replacement for the lost revenues, and defeated the bill by a vote of 57-53-4 (71 votes were needed). Although Republican Leader Cross had proposed the plan, only 3 Republicans voted for it!

I sponsored House Amendment #2 to SB 307 as an act of compromise. It had not been my idea to shift responsibility for regional transit to the state budget, but I agreed to a new funding source in order to put an end to the months of anxiety the legislative infighting had placed on transit riders and workers. In fact, SB 572 that I have sponsored all spring, summer and fall would be a regional solution to a regional need -- with a modest increase in the regional sales tax along with a Chicago-based real estate transfer tax. This would produce $530 million of new revenues for transit operations, as well as to pay for the CTA pension reform plan.

Here's the real story. Throughout the excruciating debate on the House floor it became quite clear that the real issue is not with the funding. The House Republicans continue to hold transit hostage to another agenda: a capital infrastructure program that would also fund roads, bridges and school construction throughout the state. The leaders are discussing an expansion in casinos to pay for that. Since transit also needs capital dollars for new buses, rail and station improvements, I support a capital bill – although transit funding is a real emergency and should be resolved immediately.

Once again the clock truly is ticking toward doomsday. The RTA must adopt an austere budget on December 14th – over $400 million in budget deficits will have to be made up with fare hikes and massive service reductions. The one-time loan by the Governor last September has reduced next year's revenues even further. The pension and retiree healthcare reforms negotiated with the unions expire on December 31st. Over 2,000 CTA workers have been given layoff notices, just before the holidays.

I've come to the conclusion that the leaders and the Governor should be pressed to finalize details on the capital bill. Once that happens, our version of a comprehensive transit bill will be passed. Please write or call the legislative leaders and the Governor to tell them that we must take action now!

. . .


Julie Hamos State Representative,
18th District

CMAP: Compact As In Dense?

Yesterday was the roundtable sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council that featured Reid Ewing, the leading author of "Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change." (Book available for free download here.)

Ewing's presentation, like the book, was very informative. He started by demonstrating the link between increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and an increase in world temperature. Ewing had some Chicago-specific data showing that the average temperature in Chicago has gone up significantly in the past 25 years.

After establishing the heavy contribution of the transportation sector to CO2 emissions, Ewing then focused on three factors that establish the level of those emissions: (1) vehicle fuel efficiency; (2) carbon content of the fuel used to power those vehicles; and (3) the miles covered by those vehicles. Ewing pointed out, like the authors of a study recently summarized here, that vehicle miles traveled have increased much faster than population growth. This VMT growth offsets the improvements in vehicle efficiency and the use of less carbon rich fuels, which leaves the transportation sector responsible for an unacceptably large and growing share of carbon emissions.

Ewing outlined how the Chicago area is sprawling and how that exurban growth is driving a VMT growth rate four times the rate of population growth. He said that the Chicago area has not done a good job of building up regional centers (e.g., Joliet, Waukegan) as relatively dense communities. He also said that his research shows that the Chicago area does not score well on measures of mixed use. In other words, the region is not generating the kind of walkable/bikeable communities where many of life's destinations (e.g., school, work, shopping) are a relatively short distance away from each other.

Ewing's central point is that the only way to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from the transportation sector is to replace sprawl with compact development. By replacing the current dominant form of suburban/urban development with more compact, mixed use communities we can cut down driving and hence carbon emissions significantly. Perhaps most provocatively, Ewing argues that the housing market is increasingly inclined in favor of higher density housing. If his charts are to be believed, then the value of the McMansions on the large lots is likely to stagnate at best in the years ahead while real estate in more compact areas should appreciate in value at a more robust rate.

Ewing believes, however, that one can't bet the future of the earth's environment on consumer preferences and real estate market trends. He stopped for questions before he could go through all of his federal, state and local policy recommendations. They are easily accessible in Growing Cooler.

During the Q&A session he did discuss two policy recommendations. The first is a carbon impact fee that would be imposed on developments that will generate high levels of CO2 emissions because of the VMTs required to utilize them. The second is a system for the regional transfer of development rights. This is a system designed to allow owners of farmland to collect some of the value in their land because of its development potential by transferring development rights to developers who could use the rights to build at a higher density elsewhere in the region, preserving the open space.

The seminar included short speeches by Sadhu Johnston, Chief Environmental Officer of the City of Chicago, and Randy Blankenhorn, Executive Director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Johnston was a fount of relevant information, including:
  • Per capita carbon emissions in Chicago is about 12 tons annually, compared to 7 tons in New York and 6 tons in London.
  • Buildings account for 61 percent of carbon emissions in Chicago and transportation 20 percent. Transportation accounts for 32 percent of carbon emissions in the suburbs.
  • The areas surrounding many Chicago Transit Authority and Metra stations in Chicago lack the kind of density associated with transit oriented development. The City is focusing on TOD around such rail stations.
  • City residents save over $2 billion annually because they generate fewer VMTs on average.
  • Some of the communities in the region are banding together in a Green Region Compact to address climate change issues.
Blankenhorn was the polar opposite of Johnson. Even though his agency is charged with spearheading land use planning for the region he provided no indication that CMAP doing much of anything to address Ewing's common sense notion that to deal with climate change we must suppress the growth in VMTs. Instead Blankenhorn relied on an arpeggio of rhetorical questions to the effect of "how are we as a region going to address this and that issue raised by climate change." Geez, I thought we were looking to CMAP to take the lead on answering those kinds of questions. No such luck if Blankenhorn's windy oration is any indication.

Maybe Blankenhorn was having a bad day. Maybe he was keeping CMAP's sustainability agenda under wraps until next Tuesday's CMAP-sponsored Innovation + Integration Summit on "Creating a Regional Agenda to Address Climate Change." Let's sure hope so.

Two other notes from the MPC roundtable. First, the State of Illinois (e.g., Illinois Department of Transportation, Illinois EPA) did not appear to have any representation at the roundtable, which is disappointing given the importance of the topic and the role State investment in infrastructure plays in creating or confounding compact development. The organizers also stated that MPC had organized a reception for legislators to meet Ewing that morning and only one legislator showed up. (Let's hope the MPC didn't make the mistake of inviting the legislators to a "special session" with Ewing!)

Second, the crowd was overwhelmingly white. How is it that this region is so diverse and the transportation professional sector is so unrepresentative of that diversity?

Parking Space Tax: Maybe It Was A Bolshevist Fantasy

An earlier post argued that a tax on parking spaces that could be used to fund transportation improvements, including transit, was not a "Bolshevist fantasy" and should be taken seriously. Apparently, such a tax may be just such a fantasy. Under pressure from business groups (here and here) upset over the level of property taxes on businesses (in both an absolute sense and relative to the property tax paid by individuals), the provincial government of British Columbia abolished the parking space tax that was recently imposed in Vancouver to help fund its transit system. News reports (e.g., here) described the tax as "much despised."

Note, however, that rather than just abolishing the parking space tax, the tax now will be extended to all property owners. Thus, the action may not adversely affect the amount of revenue generated for transit and other uses. Indeed, it may be a good thing that property owners in a metropolitan region, whose property values are presumably increased by the presence of a public transit system, share in the cost of that system.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Do We Need An RTA For Transportation Seminars?

This blog has lambasted the RTA and its oversight shortcomings on occasion, probably too much for the taste of readers given the tepid response to the last posting on the subject. However, it looks like the transit aficionado community could use some oversight, at least when it comes to coordinating schedules.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Metropolitan Planning Council have booked partially overlapping seminars this Thursday. It is a shame, because both seminars look interesting and likely appeal to similar crowds. Here's the information:

Planning Transit Routes that Meet Your Community’s Goals

Join us for a Webinar on December 6.

Space is limited.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at:
STPP and CNT are hosting the second "From the Margins to the Mainstream" webinar. This session will discuss integrating transit service planning with community planning and design in understandable terms for the non-technical person. Audience interaction will be a key part of this webinar. Please plan to join us on Dec. 6 at noon Eastern.

The webinar will feature leading transportation experts, including officials from transit agencies, local land-use/planning agencies, and the developer community.
STPP and CNT's goal is to give you the tools to participate more effectively in your community's transportation planning and decision making processes. This webinar is the second in a series of webinars CNT and STPP are hosting in order to improve public involvement in transportation decision-making. As part of the same project CNT and STPP will also be hosting two workshops and on-site pilot projects in 2008. Funding for this program is provided by the Federal Transit Administration, the Oak Foundation,and AARP.

Title: Planning Transit Routes that Meet Your Community's Goals
Date: Thursday, October 6, 2007
Time: 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM EDT

* * *

The Heat is On: Why hybrid vehicles won't save the planet
December 6
12:00 pm–1:30 pm
Mayer Brown, 71 S. Wacker Drive, 33rd Floor
Cost for MPC donors: $15.00
Cost for non-donors: $30.00

MPC 2007 Winter Roundtable Series. Reid Ewing comes to speak about his new, highly acclaimed study, which concludes that energy-efficient cars and low-carbon fuel technologies alone are not enough to reverse the damaging effects of climate change. Along with a panel of local experts, Ewing will discuss how we need to change the land-use patterns which create our auto dependency.

LA Learns From Its Loss

Still smarting from its loss of an Urban Partnership Program grant, Los Angeles has apparently learned from the experience and is moving ahead with a plan to implement tolling on current carpool lanes in expressways in the region. The Board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved the tolling plan at its meeting last Thursday. There is even talk of devoting some of the toll revenue to transit improvements.

Locally, nothing but silence despite this region's loss of such a grant. Those who fail to learn from history. . . .

Monday, December 3, 2007

Does Increased Energy Efficiency Cause Sprawl?

A short and clearly written recent article by Jeff Rubin and Benjamin Tal entitled "Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy" is worth a look. It examines the seeming paradox: Energy efficiency gains have not resulted in declines in energy usage in the United States. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true.

The article first documents that the United States is making significant gains in energy efficiency. Energy use per unit of U.S. GDP, for example, has fallen by almost 50 percent since 1975. The transportation and residential sectors of the U.S. economy have led the energy efficiency charge. Energy efficiency in those sectors has improved 50% faster than the pace in the rest of the economy.

Yet, paradoxically, the overall energy consumed by these same transportation and residential sectors has increased more rapidly than in other sectors. In the transportation sector, greater fuel efficiency has prompted people to drive more and bigger vehicles greater distances. In the housing sector, the energy efficiency gains are more than offset by larger houses filled with more gadgets powered by electricity. The size of the average house, for example, has increased from 1,000 square feet in 1950 to 2,500 square feet today.

It appears that we have a situation where the energy efficiency gains in the transportation and housing sectors over the past three decades have been handed over to developers and consumers in the form of McMansions and sprawling exurban development. There are credible views that this is a good thing, a happy expression of democracy, capitalism and consumer preferences. University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Robert Bruegmann, author of the book "Sprawl: A Compact History," is a leading proponent of this view.

If, however, one views reduced energy consumption as the key to averting future environmental problems from rising levels of atmospheric CO2 and/or are concerned about the environmental implications of paving over more land, then giving up the efficiency gains in this manner represents a colossal missed opportunity. Had consumption of road travel, land and houses held steady at 1975 levels, then the efficiency gains since then would have yielded significant reductions in per capita energy consumption. The average's person's environmental footprint would have been significantly smaller than it is today.

In light of the Rubin/Tal analysis, environmentalists and transit advocates might think twice before celebrati recent news of a compromise in the U.S. House that opens way for a new federal law that will increase auto fuel efficiency standards by 40 percent by the year 2020. If Rubin and Tal are correct, these efficiency gains will just prompt people to drive more miles in ever more souped-up vehicles. In other words, the cost of living in auto-centric areas will go down as a result of the efficiency gains, making the exurbs even more attractive. At the same time, transit's advantage over the private auto when it comes to per passenger energy consumption and pollution will continue to shrink. (Here and here.)

One way to deal with the energy efficiency paradox that Rubin/Tal discuss is to treat energy efficiency gains as a public good. After all, such gains are often prompted by political action such as laws increasing car mileage standards or mandating tougher limits on pollution. These energy efficiency gains would be protected through taxes (e.g., tax on carbon) and/or user fees (e.g., highway tolls) designed to tamp down demand for use of these efficiency gains in ways that increase energy consumption.

So, for example, had the improvements in energy efficiency in the past 30 years been matched by a gas tax increase or much more extensive use of highway tolling, we might not have seen the efficiency gains be eaten up to the same extent by sprawl-like development with its greater per-capita vehicle mileage rates. Imagine how much money might have been generated for the Illinois Department of Transportation and transit agencies like the Chicago Transit Authority if the public sector had kept even a small percentage of the energy efficiency gains over the past 30 years through such measures.

Until we address the energy efficiency paradox in some some fashion, transit's comparative disadvantages in the transportation market will continue to increase as cars get more efficient. Likewise, urban regions will continue to sprawl because energy efficiency gains in transportation and housing make detached houses on relatively sizable lots all the more attractive.

Those who think that more money for transit and hectoring local officials to embrace transit-oriented development will be enough to tame sprawl may be fooling themselves. Until energy efficiency gains are preserved through use of taxes and/or user fees or some other mechanism, we will all be watching the energy efficiency paradox play out as our built environment and transportation network continue to sprawl.

Maybe Professor Bruegmann will then write a "Sprawling History Of The Demise Of Compact Urban Areas In America."

Saturday, December 1, 2007

RTA Innocent Victim in William Coulson's "Transit Follies" Piece

William Coulson, a Chicago lawyer who joined the board of the Regional Transportation Authority earlier this year, has posted an article entitled "Transit Follies in Chicago" on the blog of Mass Transit magazine. It is generally rare for senior public officials like Coulson to get off the reservation established by their institution's PR team. This piece, however, reads like it may have been authored by Coulson.

The article is Coulson's historical perspective on the current transit funding situation in the RTA's service area in northeastern Illinois. In the piece he portrays the RTA and the service boards--Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace--as innocent victims of bitter political infighting by politicians unable to put together a deal.

This kind of revisionist history is disappointing from an RTA board member who has signaled at least a bit of an independent streak. It also suggests that the RTA continues to be unwilling to acknowledge its role in causing the current transit funding crisis. The RTA's unwillingness to acknowledge partial responsibility for this crisis no doubt makes it a less sympathetic candidate for additional public funding.

Coulson begins by stating that "the RTA and the service boards have been warning Illinois political leaders for years that the system was seriously underfunded and heading for a serious breakdown." Actually, until the Moving Beyond Congestion effort by the current RTA administration the RTA resisted efforts to bring transit funding challenges to the attention of the Governor and the General Assembly. There was significant inter-agency discord when the CTA attempted to do so on its own.

Coulson thus ignores two major RTA failures. First, the RTA's equivocation about whether there was a transit funding problem and its resistance to going to Springfield for a fix meant that the General Assembly and the Governor now are stuck with a major "crisis" to fix. Second, despite statutory requirements that the RTA only approve service board budgets that are balanced and reasonable, the Auditor General found that the RTA had allowed the service boards to expand their service levels beyond what they could afford for at least the past five years.

A year ago, the service boards thus faced major operating deficits going into 2007. Rather than press them to make the service cuts, increase fares and/or extract labor concession at that time, as it was required to do, the RTA made a third major mistake. It approved service board budgets that were balanced only by using a plug number for substantial hoped-for additional state funding. Here is Coulson's take on that decision:

Thus, there is no dispute that the financial crisis is real and that there is a long-term plan to significantly improve the system. Enter Illinois’ unique brand of politics.

The RTA is financed largely through fares, a sales tax imposed in the six counties and a state match of 25 percent of the sales taxes raised. So optimistic was the RTA board in December of 2006 that the 2007 budgets included as projected revenue more than $200 million in what was called “New Transit Funding.”

Coulson was not on the RTA board in December 2006 and neither was I. Nonetheless, if the RTA had had some reasonable basis back then for its optimism it has yet to reveal what it was. No bill increasing transit funding had been introduced at that point. The Auditor General had not yet released its audit report. No prominent political figure had publicly expressed support for a tax increase necessary to provide the RTA with more money. The RTA was like the kid hoping for an allowance increase based on a parental statement that "we will take care of that later."

While I'm not an expert in GAAP accounting, I very much doubt that optimism over increased revenue from the timely passage of a bill increasing taxes that has yet to be introduced in the legislature or be publicly supported by any significant political figure has the necessary certainty to count as revenue. Yet, that is what the RTA did when it approved the 2007 service board budgets.

After glossing over these compounding errors, which will mean that doomsday if it ever comes will be even tougher on transit users, Coulson goes on to summarize the back and forth over the various transit bailout bills and the rancor that exists among the political leaders. He ends his piece with a bit of bravado:

What to make of it all? I have tremendous respect for the elected public officials who face the daunting task of balancing the state budget in the face of competing demands from constituents. They will have to decide ultimately how important mass transit is to the well-being and economic vitality of Illinois. And the people — who elect them — will have the final word on all this.

As an appointed board member of the RTA, I share the responsibility to provide the best transit to the people of the six-county region that the allotted financial resources will responsibly permit. If our elected leaders want a second-rate system, that is what they will get.

What is missing from Coulson's piece is any acknowledgement that in recent years the RTA failed its "responsibility to provide the best transit to the people of the six-county region that the alloted financial resources will responsibly permit." The RTA let the service boards expand service beyond their financial means and then plopped the resulting crisis into the lap of the General Assembly and Governor.

How refreshing it would have been if Coulson had said something like "the RTA made serious errors, but we have learned from those errors and with the money and increased authority you give us we will provide the best system within the financial means you provide." RTA acceptance of its share of the responsibility for the current crisis certainly would go down better than yet another threat about a "second-rate system" from an key member of a financial oversight agency that failed to do its job.

Time To Say Something Nice: State Attacks Teen Driving Accident Problem

In response to my recent Rant & Rave post (sorry readers), someone requested that I say something nice for a change. Here it is:

In the good news department, the Illinois State Police recently won an award from the Roadway Safety Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration for the ISP's Tazewell County Teen Initiative. (Press release; article) The Tazewell program was as follows:

The Tazewell County Teen Initiative was developed to address the number of teenage drivers that died between March 2005 and July 2006 on Tazewell County roadways. During that time, 15 teenagers lost their lives, sparking a cry for action. The Illinois State Police District 8, along with the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Tazewell County Sheriff and the Tazewell County Coroner, teamed up to form the multifaceted public awareness campaign targeted to schools, hospitals, emergency response teams, media and the private sector. Since the program was launched there have been no teen traffic fatalities in Tazewell County.

The ISP, the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Illinois Secretary of State, in conjunction with other public agencies and the Ford Motor Company, are expanding the program statewide. (Press release) The program is called Operation Teen Safe Driving
and is being funded by a $150,000 IDOT grant.

Teen drivers account for a disproportionate share of auto accidents and fatalities. In addition to Operation Teen Safe Driving, the State has enacted new laws directed at teenage drivers. SB 172 (P.A. 95-310) extends the time for a learners permit from three months to nine months, extends curfews for teen drivers and doubles from six to 12 months the time during which a driver under 18 with a graduated drivers license may carry only one unrelated passenger under the age of 20, excluding siblings. HB 518 (P.A. 95-201) authorizes the Secretary of State of establish a website so parents can check the driving records of their children.

This expanded program appears to be a nice example of a public-private partnership for a good end. It is disturbing that a single downed jetliner with the loss of a couple hundred lives gets front page coverage while the over 40,000 annual fatalities on our highways are treated as some sort of inexorable fact of nature. It is great to see IDOT and the ISP attacking the auto accident problem and the complacency that surrounds that problem.