Transit Funding News
Friday, March 1st, 2013
Photo Credit: Steven Vance/Flickr Creative Commons License
With deficit reduction still the watchword in public policy and with federal spending on a downward slope, states and regions are exploring different ways to fund programs and public works like transportation infrastructure. Traditionally, highways and roads are mostly paid for through the Highway Trust Fund which was designed to draw on gas taxes paid by motorists. However, from time to time as the fund runs dry, the Congress tops it off with money from general revenue. Although some economists dispute this, deficit financed highway construction is generally considered to be less than optimal public policy.
As part of the Hamilton Project’s 15 Ways to Rethink the Federal Budget, Jack Basso and Tyler Duvall discuss the potential solution offered by ‘user fees’—in other words, charging road users directly for the use of certain highways. Sometimes called ‘congestion pricing’, the main advantage of this proposal is that it succeeds in both raising revenue to reduce the deficit and reducing traffic congestion and the negative effects associated with it. The pair estimates that a federal user fee could raise $312 billion over the next decade, money that could be used not just for deficit reduction but also to invest in smarter infrastructure projects like expanding and improving transit systems that would help mitigate congestion even further.
User fees are often politically unpopular, at least in the beginning. Motorists naturally resent being obliged to pay for something that they previously used ‘for free’. The truth of course is that building and maintaining highways has never been free and the congestion that plagues so much of the highway system costs motorists directly in wasted time and wasted fuel as well as harming the environment. Proponents of user fees argue that the cost of road use should be borne by road users and that if the cost was reflected by the price, many would reconsider whether and when to make their journey by car.
Basso and Duvall point to the example of Singapore, a city of 5 million that occupies only 250 square miles of land. Despite their population density, Singapore’s use of electronic road pricing has delivered both increased revenue and free flow speeds on its major roadways. As the traditional funding mechanism for surface transportation infrastructure becomes increasingly inadequate, perhaps user fees are the sort of innovative method that policy makers should consider to pay for transportation infrastructure.
Monday, February 11th, 2013
If there was ever a reason for more transit it is embodied in the recently published report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institution (TTI). Its 2012 Urban Mobility Report details the enormous costs associated with the ever increasing traffic congestion blighting America’s major metro areas. It calculates, for example, that in 2011 commuters spent 5.5 billion hours sitting in traffic (equivalent to the total amount of time that businesses and individuals spend filing their annual tax returns), wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel and pumped out 56 billion extra pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Photo Credit: Steven Vance/Flickr Creative Commons License
The Chicagoland area ranks 7th overall when it comes to hours wasted due to traffic congestion, 8th in terms of wasted fuel and 5th in terms of total dollar cost. The average Chicago commuter spends 51 hours a year in traffic, consuming 24 extra gallons of fuel. Traffic congestion cost each Chicagoan commuter an average of $1,153 in 2011. This is not efficient use of resources. Chicagoland commuters are also contributing to global warming by pumping out more than 2.3 billion pounds of carbon dioxide while sitting in traffic.
I agree with some of the potential solutions cited in the report. The authors point out that in the absence of public transit services in the 498 major metro areas studied, the situation would have been a lot worse. Commuters would have suffered through an additional 865 million hours of wasted time and consumed 450 million extra gallons of fuel. This wasted time and fuel would have cost, according to the report, an additional $20.8 billion, a 15% increase over current congestion costs.
Photo Credit: Zesmerelda/Flickr Creative Commons License
While the report mentions increased highway capacity and more efficient use of highway infrastructure as part of a potential remedy, it emphasizes the importance of greater investment in expanding and improving public transit services in cities and their surrounding areas. Transit services don’t just take cars off the road improving traffic flow. They offer a safe, affordable and environmentally friendly alternative. The huge costs, financial and environmental, caused by traffic congestion highlighted in this report lend even more weight to the argument for greater commitment to transit infrastructure laid out in CMAP’s GOTO 2040.
Read the full report here.>>
Thursday, January 31st, 2013
CNT will be participating in an upcoming summit on Building a 21st Century Transit System. Riders for Better Transit, a group dedicated to organizing Chicagoland transit riders to push for improved and expanded services in the city, will be hosting a summit at the UBS Tower Conference Center on February 25th. Bringing together a group of transportation policy leaders, the summit will discuss the challenges of creating a 21st century transit system. Focusing on issues like reform of the transit authorities’ governance structure and funding sources and investment strategies of the Chicagoland transit system, expert panels will discuss potential solutions to the problems facing the region. Read more »
Monday, August 6th, 2012
On June 29, the United States House of Representatives passed the Transportation-HUD Appropriations bill for FY2013. Differing from both the President’s budget and the tentative Senate budget, the House plan does not include any funding for the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI), which was established in 2010 as part of a federal pledge to coordinate transportation, economic, and environmental improvement projects to create a more sustainable nation. Through direct community and regional grants, this comprehensive program has already helped numerous municipalities nationwide to thrive, including several in the Chicago region.
The Initiative provides grant support through Community Challenge Grants and Regional Planning Grants, both of which help urban, suburban, and rural areas plan for sustainable development and encourage building code and land use reform. These efforts, in turn, provide communities with the opportunity to build transportation infrastructure that shortens the link between jobs and affordable housing.
The holistic focus of the grants enables the creation of mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhoods, bolsters economic development through job creation and increased connectivity, and improves both public and environmental health by decreasing traffic congestion and using infill to revitalize neighborhoods. These grants are integral to sustained national growth.
Funding for the Initiative is provided through a set aside by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Fund (CDBG) program; administration of the grants is supported by a partnership between HUD, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Thankfully, the President’s budget for FY2013 aims to restore the FY2011 level of funding ($100 million), and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $50 million for the Initiative, but the full Senate has not voted on the bill.
Unfortunately, the House budget once again leaves this important program without any funding, providing our nation with no way to make sustainable investments in our cities and towns. The myriad benefits that SCI grants help to realize—in the areas of economic growth and sustainable development—are too important to be left unfunded. Without money from SCI, metropolitan areas around the country are deprived of the opportunity to strategically integrate jobs, housing, and transit into their communities.
In the Chicago region, the benefits of SCI are palpable. During the first two years of funding, three separate area coalitions received grants to invest in economic development, housing, and transportation. The South Suburban Mayor and Management Association (SSMMA) and the West Cook County Housing Collaborative were awarded Community Challenge Grants of $2.3 million and $3 million, respectively, while the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) was granted a Regional Planning Grant of $4.25 million to fund local technical assistance (LTA) programs.
The improvement projects funded by the SCI grants have provided multiple new growth opportunities to underserved neighborhoods. Both the SSMMA and the Housing Collaborative are using their grants to establish transit-oriented development (TOD) in their communities, and the SSMMA has created a pre-development fund to facilitate the building process. CMAP has created a thriving LTA program that provides short-term targeted technical assistance to guide development decisions for communities throughout the region. These programs are all crucial to the continued success of CMAP’s regional vision plan GO TO 2040.
Chicago has proven its commitment to positive change–as evidenced by the dozens of successful improvement projects throughout the area–but commitment is not enough. Chicago needs the funds provided by SCI grants to continue progressing toward its goals. We cannot afford to let Congress eliminate these funds. Please contact your congressional representative today, and make your voice heard. SCI grants are improving the Chicago region by creating municipalities that are both affordable and economically competitive. SCI grants are integral to our future, do not let them disappear.
Friday, July 20th, 2012
On June 22, the US Department of Transportation (US DOT) approved a $10.4 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program grant to the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) project. The grant will complete a $370 million rail improvement funding package that was established through CREATE’s groundbreaking public-private partnership between the US DOT, State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
These TIGER funds will contribute to the completion of fifteen planned infrastructure improvement projects, eight of which are concentrated along CREATE’s Western Avenue corridor. Five railroads–Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian National, CSX, Indiana Harbor Belt, and Union Pacific–as well as a Metra line to Joliet and an Amtrak line to St. Louis are concentrated along the busy corridor. TIGER-funded system updates will benefit all of these rail lines by replacing hand-thrown switches with automatic ones, installing a computerized Traffic Control System, and constructing connection tracks between the different lines. These improvement projects will reduce congestion for both passenger and freight lines, resulting in increased rail capacity–good for businesses–and more efficient transit trips–good for commuters. Chicago has been a national leader in rail transit for more than 150 years. Reduced delays and increased rail efficiency in this critical transit corridor will help ensure Chicago rail’s continued vitality.
Map of CREATE projects
CREATE projects have already made significant progress in congestion mitigation: freight delay has decreased by 28 percent and passenger delay by 33 percent as a result of past improvements. The upcoming projects will be equally effective (when compared to a system with no additional improvements), with delay reductions projected at 50 percent for freight and over 60 percent for passenger rail.
CREATE's role in national rail
I believe that this example of strategic investment through the federal TIGER grant—enabling improvements in movement through the city, creating connections between housing and job opportunities, and providing for economic prosperity within the Chicago region. If Chicago takes this opportunity to make more strategic investments in transportation infrastructure it will become a national model for urban transit success.
Governor Quinn underscored the importance of CREATE to the economy of the region with his recent announcement of the next phase of Illinois Jobs Now! capital funds, which will encourage employment and economic growth by improving the state’s transportation and basic infrastructure systems. CREATE will receive $211 million of the $1.6 billion package, to augment the TIGER funding and complete the key 15 projects for increasing the transit efficiency and safety that are currently planned. Highway improvements will receive $817.3 million, and mass transit and general rail upgrades will receive $799.5 million.
One of 78 CREATE projects in progress
Quinn’s commitment to improving transit mobility is heartening. I hope that more decision makers and stakeholders take notice, and continue to implement transit-friendly legislation. Chicago has the opportunity to lead the nation in transportation sustainability –let’s make it happen!
Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has proposed a variety of solutions to help alleviate congestion on I-290—all of which include adding more lanes to the highway. While highway expansion may help to fulfill the goal of reducing travel times across the Eisenhower (it didn’t in the case of the “Hillside Strangler”), it presents environmental, community, and fiscal concerns that must be considered in the planning process.
Oak Park is one of the neighborhoods that would be significantly impacted by this highway expansion, as it could result in a loss of park acreage as well as the destruction of several residential neighborhoods, including a historic district. Oak Park is recognized as a leader in environmental initiatives around the region and many Oak Park residents have shown interest in exploring sustainable options during this planning process.
With 200,000 cars driving on I-290 everyday, this highway is a key gateway connecting the western suburbs to Chicago. The Eisenhower was not originally designed to carry this volume of drivers at once, however, and it is currently one of the most congested highways in the Chicagoland area.
An image from CTA demonstrating the heavy traffic along I-290.
According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s (CMAP) figures, east-bound lanes are jammed for more than nine hours a day; and west-bound lanes for more than seven hours a day. During peak hours, expected travel time between any two locations tends to be more than twice that of free-flow hours. And while the highway drivers are suffering from painstakingly long commutes, residents of Oak Park living along the highway are dealing with elevated noise and air pollution.
According to past studies by the American Lung Association, 33 percent of Oak Park villagers live in diesel hot spots, meaning they are exposed to higher levels of diesel emissions than are generally considered to be safe. Oak Park residents are worried that noise levels and air quality will worsen with highway expansion and that the expansion will further isolate the Village’s north and south-side residents from one another.
Finances present an additional concern. This project is estimated to cost between $600 and $800 million over the next decade. These costs include not only expenses directly associated with building more highway lanes, but also the cost of bridges, retaining walls, overpasses, and El tracks that will have to be renovated to fit the wider expressway.
Despite the issues of pollution, community reconfiguration, and financing, there is a support group for the expansion. For example, CMAP’s GO TO 2040 plan asserts that the potential benefits of the expansion —reducing traffic congestion, eliminating multiple left-hand exit and entrance ramps, and creating a car-pool friendly HOV lane—outweigh any associated detriments. These benefits are still theoretical and, when completed, the project may do little to improve highway commuting.
One of the favored alternative plans among Oak Park residents and CNT staff is to expand the Blue Line, which already runs near many of the neighborhoods affected by the proposed Ike expansion; more research is needed to determine if that solution would benefit the community. Oak Park already has ample train services, with access to CTA buses and trains as well as the Metra. But for commuters who live west of the Forest Part terminus, driving is the only option.
Current transportation options in Oak Park. Map originated from a draft of I-DOT’s Environmental Impact Statement.
In 2011, 220,762 commutes were taken on the Blue Line entering from the Oak Park Station, 13,000 more rides than 2010’s figures. As it is, the Blue Line currently diverts an approximated 24,550 transit commuters from highways. According to IDOT’s own studies, expansion of the Blue Line and improvement of bus service could reduce between 7,000 and 11,600 auto trips annually. These figures show that transit ridership is becoming a more favorable option for commuters and that transit expansion could reduce road congestion.
The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Cook-DuPage Corridor Study, conducted between 2005 and 2009, evaluated mobility problems along I-290 as well as their potential solutions, many of which include transit. Those of us engaged in transportation issues at CNT would like to see these alternative options, and their ability to connect commuters with job centers, more fully evaluated in IDOT’s final plans.
The absence of both an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and an alternative option in IDOT’s initial proposal is concerning. The alternative option is required by law to be submitted in draft form to the EPA during the initial stages of planning—not towards the end or the middle. While IDOT is planning on submitting its first draft of an EIS in the fall of 2012, with public hearing of it in the spring of 2013, we think they should get their homework done sooner.
“Cap the Ike”—an alternative vision for Oak Park proposed in 2003 to deal with congestion, noise, and air pollution associated with I-290. This plan that would build green space and roadways over the Eisenhower has not been mentioned in recent debates about this issue.
With the recent passing of the MAP-21 national transportation bill, which is increasing the availability of federal dollars funneled to states to support non-automotive transportation development, now is the optimal time for exploring alternative solutions for congestion reduction. Extending train lines, improving bus services, and creating more bike paths are all viable ways to maximize transportation availability while reducing automobile reliance. Oak Park residents and environmentally-conscious commuters along the I-290 corridor should maintain their persistence and not let Chicago’s landscape become increasingly cluttered by highways.
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
On Friday, the transportation bill was passed by an overwhelming majority in both chambers. In the Senate, the bill passed by a bi-partisan vote of 74-19, and in the House, all but the 52 Tea Party Republicans voted for the bill. The “compromise bill” is not ideal, and many reform provisions included in the approved Senate bill were taken out in the conference committee – but there are some victories.
The new, $127 billion bill will last 27 months. It provides funding for transit at about the same level as current law and the transit program continues to derive the majority of its funding from the Highway Trust Fund. Importantly, the bill continues direct suballocation of highway funding from one of the main highway programs – the Transportation Mobility program to metro areas over 200,000. The dollar amount is about the same as before but the percentage share for metro areas dropped from 62.5% of the program to 50% – a change we argued against – but the house wanted zero suballocation so it’s a partial victory. Details on a new $500 million program for projects of national significance are not clear, but it seems to be modeled on the popular TIGER grant program – although funding will be reserved for projects at the $50 million or higher level.
The Transportation Enhancements (TE), Safe Routes, Recreational Trails, and Scenic Byways programs were consolidated into a “Transportation Alternatives” program, with funding cut by 1/3 of what the previous programs received. (50 percent of the funds are to be suballocated to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) with over 200,000 population, while the remaining 50 percent will be distributed by the state as in current law.) The states were given several ‘outs’ on this program including opting out of the program entirely under certain circumstances, including using all of the funds to repair damage caused by a natural disaster – tornadoes, hurricanes etc. Keeping a bicycle and pedestrian program at all was possible only because advocates turned up the heat last week and you made your voices heard.
A new pilot program provides $10 million for transit-oriented development planning, which allows communities to do station area planning, but there is no special TOD capital program. However, the bill does not restore parity between transit and parking tax benefits as the Senate bill did. This means the transit benefit that expired on the first of the year will remain in effect. Its expiration reduced the maximum monthly pretax benefit to $125 from the $230 it had been since the President’s stimulus package of 2009.
The bill requires regions over 1 million people to develop a performance plan that outlines baseline conditions and targets for each of the performance measures developed by USDOT. It also requires a description of the projects funded and how such projects will help to meet the goal. Unfortunately, in increasing the TIFIA program (loans and credit enhancement for innovative finance or public-private partnerships) from the current $122 million per year to $750 million the first year and $1 billion the second, the bill eliminates current program objectives and makes this a first come, first served program, rather than performance based. This is immediately most useful to agencies that either have a proven source of dedicated revenues from future projects, such as ports, airports and toll highway authorities, and to a handful of regions that have passed or might soon pass a dedicated revenue source for mass transit investments
All of the safety provisions from the Senate’s bill were successfully adopted into the new bill. The first of these provisions is an incentive grant program to encourage states to implement laws addressing teen drivers, distracted and impaired drivers, and occupant protection. Additionally, DOT is required to issue new safety standards addressing occupant protection in vehicles to improve seatbelts, roof crush strength, anti-ejection window glazing, tire pressure monitoring, and rollover prevention. Furthermore, interstate buses and trucks will be required to install electronic-on-board recorders (EOBRs) to improve safety by ensuring hours of service (HOS) rules are followed. Several child safety measures such as consumer information on the performance of child safety seats in front and side impact collisions and improvements on the latch that anchors the seat to the vehicle, were also included.
The Senate bill had included a rail title for the first time, including eligibility for passenger rail projects but the rail title was removed all together. Additionally, the Senate bill had included a national freight program but that also was struck. A national freight policy and goals, however, were established and national freight plan is now required.
This bill comes with several other problems. One of the most striking changes is that there is no dedicated funding for road and bridge repair, while under the current law roughly 32 percent of funding is restricted to repair. It also eliminates the current priority for toll revenues to go to projects that provide alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel. The bill also directs the transportation Secretary to suspend environmental reviews of highway and transit projects costing less than $5 million and makes other changes to “streamline” the process that was established under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Moreover, we lost the Senate provision to design federal aid roads to accommodate all users (Complete Streets), which is a big disappointment.
One of the biggest surprises (in a good sense) of the bill is that it did not include provisions to advance the Keystone XL Pipeline project. As an environmental bonus, the Act included the Gulf Coast Restoration fund (otherwise known as the RESTORE Act) which provides for 80 percent of civil penalties (estimated at $5 – 20 billion) related to the BP oil spill to be used to clean up coastal eco-systems.
Overall the bill is not what we had envisioned, and it seems the Senate bill was highly compromised to make this “compromise bill.” Be on the look-out for a piece on how this bill impacts cities in general and Chicago in particular.
Monday, June 25th, 2012
The current transportation authorization expires next Saturday, June 30. The original bill, which expired nearly 1,000 days ago, has already been renewed 9 times. In an effort to create a bill with majority support and to avoid the 10th renewal of the bill, the Senate created a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK). MAP-21 was passed with support from Democrats and Republicans from every region of the country, not an easy task to accomplish, but the House is preventing further advancement by pushing their radical agenda onto the Senate’s bill.
In an effort to speed up projects and cut any red tape, MAP-21 lays out reforms for project reviews and the delivery processes. These reforms still allow taxpayers the ability to play a role in projects that will influence their community and health. The House, however, has different ideas. They have proposed project streamlining, which eliminates the rights of local citizens and elected officials to be involved in shaping transportation projects.
MAP-21 consolidates small programs like Transportation Enhancement (TE) and Safe Routes to School into a single program that provides funding to local communities for projects to improve safety, revitalize communities, and improve the environment. This program allows decisions over local issues to be made locally, by people that know them best. The House, however, wants to prevent local input by eliminating these programs all together, which puts the safety of America’s roadways at risk.
In today’s economy when the unemployment rate is 8.2%, job creation is on the mind of every American. Some members of the House want to cut the funding measures for job creation laid out in MAP-21. This would reduce the projected 3 million jobs by an unthinkable 500,000, and shows the blatant disregard for Americans’ well-beings.
Members of the House are intent on changing the Senate’s bill, but their bill never made it to the floor for a vote, and it failed to dedicate any money to road and bridge repair. The Senate’s bill, however, increases funding for these repairs above even what the current law has allotted.
As if this was not enough, the House is pushing to add the Keystone XL pipeline project to the bill, a measure that will surely prevent its implementation. President Obama has previously stated that he will veto any bill with the Keystone XL pipeline project, so the proposed addition would serve only to cripple any attempt at passing a new transportation bill.
MAP-21 is the clearest path forward and offers the best chance at a bi-partisan supported bill. Without a committee consensus, the threat of shut down becomes increasingly possible. The continued failure to compromise and pass a bi-partisan supported bill puts the creation of millions of jobs and the safety of our roads, bridges, and transit systems in jeopardy.
I urge you to ask your Representatives to talk to members of the Transportation Conference Committee. Tell Conferees to stop trying to compromise the integrity of the Senate’s bi-partisan supported bill. Remind your members of Congress that the Conference Committee should be focusing on the job creation and long-term economic benefits for their constituents, rather than on their political careers and the upcoming election. And urge your Senators and Representatives to support MAP-21.
Thursday, May 24th, 2012
After a steady increase during the 1980s and 1990s, VMT, or vehicle miles traveled, have leveled out in the United States and are actually decreasing in the wake of the Great Recession. Even during the slow recovery period we’re now in, Americans are keeping their foot off the gas pedal.
Americans are holding on to their cars. There are more than 240 million passenger vehicles in operation nationwide. Only in 2008 were there more cars on the road in the United States. The average age of these vehicles in circulation has steadily increased from an 8.4 year average in 1995 to 10.8 in 2011.
It seems likely that people are holding on to their cars not necessarily because they want to, but because there’s no other way to get around. A 2010 poll found that the majority of adults in the United States say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and most would like to spend less time in their cars. Transit may exist for many of these people, but the hassle of accessibility doesn’t translate into more ridership for many cities around the country.
A 2010 poll found that the majority of adults in the United States say they have no choice but to drive as much as they do and most would like to spend less time in their cars. Photo by Flickr User: freefotouk
Whether it’s the recession or a response to high gas prices or something else, people are driving less but holding on to their cars. People who care about cities, affordability, and the environment need to capitalize on this change in behavior by making it easier and obvious for people to keep their VMT low even when the economy gets stronger, gas prices drop, etc.
That means policies and funding for transit, biking, and car-sharing that reflects a fundamental shift in how we view and invest in transportation networks. We need policies that support infrastructure for multiple mobility options instead of policies that prioritize driving over everything else. If we want to offer a way for people to drive less long-term, dependable and convenient transportation options are a must.
This argument I’m making isn’t particularly novel to anyone outside of the Capitol. Cities and regions are getting it and moving forward with innovative ways to fund transit on their own. In at least 33 metropolitan regions around the country, large investments are being made in streetcars, light rail, metro rail, or commuter rail projects in 2012. I wrote about Los Angeles’ efforts not too long ago. In 2009, Oklahoma City voters approved MAPS3 program, which included $130 million worth of mass transit improvements in addition to other public works and redevelopment projects. The Research Triangle area has three counties and two metropolitan planning organizations working together on funding a dedicated transit system, with Durham County already approving a sales tax increase for its part. Here in Chicago, we expect our new Infrastructure Trust to be used to invest in transit upgrades and expansion.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and her Senate colleagues have developed a bipartisan bill - Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) - which would reauthorize the nation's surface transportation programs for the next two years. Photo credit: U.S. Senate Photo Studio
Congress desperately needs to get on board. Public transit is not partisan. Saving people money on getting to work and the grocery store is not partisan. But both Republicans and Democrats have failed for more than three years now to reach common ground on a multiyear transportation bill to replace the 2005-09 legislation. We are on the ninth short term extension, which will expire on June 30. Forty seven Members of Congress are meeting now to decide the fate of public transportation in our country. Such a critical issue deserves a thoughtful approach that articulates a transportation vision for the country for the next 50 years and beyond.
Thursday, April 26th, 2012
Two years ago, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, transportation officials and stakeholders in Chicago joined together to outline a plan to improve residents’ quality of life and protect the environment by strengthening transportation infrastructure. Officials from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), Metra, Pace, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), and The Illinois Tollway acknowledged that spending on transportation accounts for a significant portion of a household’s annual income and that efficient transportation will reduce this financial burden, generate job growth, and contribute to the long-term health of the environment.
The goals outlined in the 2010 accord will never come to fruition without consistent funding, however, and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new Infrastructure Trust may be able to finance new projects, like transit, but we’ll still need a dedicated way to maintain and upgrade them down the road. So, this past Monday, April 23, I attended the Earth Day Transportation Summit to discuss financing options for regional transportation.
During breakout sessions, all attendees were asked to discuss a set of funding options and rate each according to soundness of public policy, ease of implementation, feasibility of enactment, and potential for growth. Based on those criteria, here are the ideas that were most popular:
- Indexing taxes to inflation was the revenue option that most people supported. Currently, the state motor fuel tax (MFT) is 19 cents per gallon for gasoline, a price that has remained unchanged since 1991. Raising the MFT to reflect inflation would result in a tax of 32 cents per gallon, almost double the current rate. Even a small raise in the MFT would generate a significant sum: according to CMAP’s GO TO 2040 plan, an increase by eight cents, with a subsequently applied inflation index, would generate $19.4-billion dollars in revenue by 2040.
- Congestion pricing received the second highest ranking among summit attendees. Under congestion pricing, drivers would be required to pay a toll when entering or leaving the city or designated zone (cordon pricing); to pay an increased toll during preset rush hours regardless of traffic (fixed pricing); or to pay fluctuating tolls based on real-time congestion. Commuters would have to then choose to spend more on transportation, find an alternate (non-toll) route, or (the optimum goal) utilize public transit. GO TO 2040 estimates that revenue from congestion pricing could generate up to $12 billion dollars by 2040.
Is congestion pricing the best way to fund transit? Photo by Joe Bergantine
- A surprise winner, in third place, was increasing parking fees. If parking fees are higher, drivers can weigh the costs of parking when they decide on travel options. If driving is the chosen mode, they are less likely to stay in one spot for extended periods of time, thus reducing street congestion caused by drivers looking endlessly for a parking spot. But, since street parking in Chicago is currently leased to Chicago Parking Meter LLC, this measure would primarily affect parking lots and suburbs where the RTA has the authority to raise fees in parking lots associated with malls, movie theaters, and private garages. Parking fees are easily implemented, however, and the idea garnered widespread support.
All of the methods we discussed for creating a dedicated transportation revenue stream are feasible. The biggest roadblock is a lack of political will from our leaders. My hope is that the new focus on how we pay for infrastructure—brought about by discussion of Chicago’s new Infrastructure Trust—will keep these issues on the table and embolden our political leaders to start making difficult but important decisions about funding our transportation system for the long run.