Why mass transit is doomed

Metra over traffic

Mass Transit in Chicago. Source: Steven Vance @flickr

I can’t recommend reading Alex Pareene’s article enough on why mass transit is doomed. Sure, it’s true that politicians don’t use it. Let’s put this into a Chicago context. How often do you think Rahm Emanuel rides the CTA, despite living a couple of blocks from the Montrose Brown Line? What about Pat Quinn, who could commute from his northwest side neighborhood in Galewood on the Metra? Before you answer – consider this fact. There exists, under the James Thompson Center (aka Illinois Capitol Building north), a non-public parking garage restricted to select public employees. A similar parking situation exists in the Daley Center, next to City Hall. When parking is free in places it shouldn’t be, what are the incentives for politicians to drive?

Another example. Several years ago, when I was an intern with the Chicago Transit Authority, the Board of the CTA took a tour of the Block 37 cavern. (Let’s neglect the fact that this behemoth was sprung from the brainchild of another politician known for never riding the CTA, Richard Daley. And let’s neglect for the moment that a $200 million basement makes a difference to precisely no one. Imagine a $200 million investment in trains and buses). How did they get there? Not by the Green Line Clinton Station, right outside CTA headquarters. No, there was vehicle transportation arranged for them. Keep in mind that this is the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

This is despite the fact that 27% of workers within the City of Chicago take public transportation to work. One in four.

And now, when the CTA is proposing a bus rapid transit solution along Ashland Avenue that speeds up travel times on one of the busiest bus routes in its system, it runs into vehement opposition because it makes driving a car slightly more cumbersome. Because, you know, driving is a god given right also enshrined in our constitution. And everyone drives (except for those 27%).

The problem is, Chicago’s mass transit system, combined, is the third largest in the country. It faces a significant capital shortfall of $18 billion to address state of good repair needs and needs an additional $12 billion over 10 years for normal capital reinvestment. Yet, the system’s sources of funding are not stable and subject to economic swings (sales tax receipts, real estate transfer tax, etc.).

You know when the State gets its way on a ridiculously flawed highway proposal that it cannot afford, and it steamrolled the transit agencies to vote in support of it, against their interests, that mass transit is doomed.

How the government shutdown affects transportation planning

Source: Beforeitsnews.com

As you have no doubt heard by now, the federal government has shutdown. So for those in the transportation planning community what does this mean?

  • In Chicago, my own agency will be running normal schedules with no direct impacts to riders due to the shutdown. However, we might have a few less riders because…
  • Chicago is fourth on the list for non-Post Office federal employee population with 16,069 employees, many of whom work downtown. This includes offices of the Federal Transit Administration, General Services Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, three departments that will see massive furloughs. Outside of D.C., New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia are tops on that list by the way.
  • If you have projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, you may want to consider hitting the pause button. “No grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, purchase orders, travel authorizations, or other documents obligating funds will be executed to any of the FTA’s 1300 grantees” according to DOT guidance. For transit agencies, grant money, obligating funds, etc. that you are getting daily from the FTA will cease. Almost all FTA staff will be furloughed. In October of FY2013, FTA payments to grantees averaged about $200m per week.
  • The above being said, if you are in the construction management or a contractor and your project stalls, don’t expect to get paid until the shutdown ends. Many transportation agencies may be loath to dip into their reserve funds to keep projects going unless there are signs that the shutdown will be short-lived.
  • Air Traffic Controllers will be on the job, although some non-“essential” FAA employees will be on furlough. TSA agents will also be on the job. If your airport is undergoing an airport planning process or is currently receiving planning grants, your project may be stalled.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration will furlough half of its employees, none of them involved in safety operations. Functions to be suspended include the high-speed rail initiative, all grant and financial assistance activities, and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan payments.



Planning Politics

So who watched the elections on Tuesday night? I was up until 1:30 AM watching the speeches. If you are an urban planner, it’s likely that you pulled the lever for Barack Obama. Because, sadly, the ideals and principles that planners hold dear are more often than not represented by the Democratic Party. And that is really a shame.

It is a shame that the Republican Party has effectively removed itself from concerns about urban affairs, the environment, and competent governance – all key factors in urban planning. Let’s face it, America is a metropolitan nation; no longer a rural agrarian society. And our metro regions have big problems and bigger governments to deal with those problems. So when you have guys like Grover Norquist saying that he “wants to drown government in a bathtub”, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in competent government. And sound planning needs competence.

It’s time that we look closer into our urban affairs – our crime, heath care, infrastructure, education, and environmental issues that are so important to cities. It’s time that we seriously devote ourselves to adapting our cities to climate change (and stop denying its existence) and our infrastructure to the needs of a 21st century economy. It’s time that we improve our environment: air, water and land, and that we refocus our limited financial resources on the infrastructure we’ve got rather than building something new that we won’t be able to afford to maintain later. And all of this takes two parties.


My Seven Transportation Conference Questions – Answered!

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 2 weeks ago I responded to a Streetsblog article that had a list of seven questions to ask as the transportation bill conference committee that was underway. I was unhappy with the questions in the article and felt that they were more beltway politics than transportation policy questions. Tanya Snyder, Streetsblog’s Capitol Hill editor, was kind enough to respond to my post, and she addressed  in detail all of my questions. I appreciate the in-depth response and  urge you to check out the post.






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My Seven Questions for the Transportation Bill Conference

D.C. Streetsblog had a list of seven questions to ask as the Transportation Bill conference was underway on Tuesday. I think the problem with their questions are that they are too focused on the sausage making rather than the content. It’s disappointing, I suppose, that such an insightful organization such as Streetsblog can fall victim to the back and forth ball game of politics when so much in transportation is on the line. Perhaps I am naive, but if I had the opportunity, these are the seven questions I would like to ask of the Transportation Committees:

  1. How will public transportation fare in the bill after being practically decapitated in the last round of talks?
  2. How do we handle the overwhelming state of good repair issues impacting all transportation infrastructure?
  3. How does the bill recognize the long (and short) term societal trends towards transportation that does not include the automobile.
  4. Does high-speed rail have a future?
  5. How will the bill address critical operational funding shortfalls (not to mention capital) that transit agencies are facing?
  6. How will the bill address the structural financial problems facing the Highway Trust Fund?
  7. Will there be a push towards alternative user fees to fund transportation infrastructure?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.