Transit Policy News
Monday, April 1st, 2013
One of the strongest arguments in favor of investment in public transit is the role it plays in mitigating traffic congestion. The logic is simple: more train and bus commuters mean fewer car commuters and fewer cars on the road. A recently released working paper from University of California scholar Michael Anderson provides some real data to back this up. In 2003, employees of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority went on strike, shutting down the cities bus and train services.
The strike, lasting 35 days, provided an ideal natural experiment demonstrating what one of the countries busiest metro areas would look like without transit services. Anderson found that during peak periods, delays caused by traffic on L.A’s major freeways increased by 47 percent or 0.19 minutes per mile. The delays were more pronounced on freeways that parallel major transit lines reinforcing the idea that transit provides a real alternative to car travel for millions of commuters. The working paper estimates that the benefit of transit in terms of traffic reduction for Los Angeles ranges from $1.2 billion to $4.1 billion per year.
These findings should cause anyone who argues that transit receives a disproportionate amount of transportation funding to think again. Of course, congestion mitigation is just one of the reasons to invest in train and bus services. Transit offers and affordable alternative to families and individuals who can’t afford to own a car. It connects communities to job centers strengthening the economy. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. If we’re serious about setting the country back on the path of sustainable and broad based economic growth, building and expanding our transit infrastructure will have to play a central role.
Friday, February 22nd, 2013
When we talk about public transit, the discussion usually focuses on cost savings to users or the impact on carbon emissions. According to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, taking public transit is not just good for our wallets and our planet, but for our bodies as well.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults do at least two and a half hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity every week. While the word “aerobic activity” generally conjures up images of treadmills and elliptical machines, moderate intensity aerobics are activities that are often already engrained in our daily lives. This includes things like tennis, gardening, bicycling (at speeds under 10 mph), and brisk walking. Without realizing it, regular public transit users may be getting their entire recommended amount of moderate intensity exercise while walking to and from their trains.
The study found that those who live in large cities with rail systems are 72 percent more likely to spend at least 30 minutes a day walking to and from public transit. When done every day, they will get the two and a half hours of weekly exercise that the CDC recommends. From 2001 to 2009, the number of people transit walking at least 30 minutes a day rose from 2.6 million to 3.4 million. With continued investment in rail systems, the number of people reaping the health benefits of transit walking will continue to grow.
These insights provide an important reminder of the connection between public transit and public health. Built urban environments can either facilitate or hinder physical activity, and the ability to safely walk to public transportation is an integral part of this. Not only must policymakers and city planners make effective public transit a priority, but they must also be sure to equip neighborhoods near rail stations with the infrastructure necessary to make them safe for pedestrians. As we plan to expand walkable public transit access in Chicago, it is likely that improved cardiovascular health and lower body weight will follow close behind.
Copies of the study can be downloaded here.>>
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 »
Thursday, January 24th, 2013
At CNT, we advocate for transit because it is an important strategy for reducing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our planet today, so it was good to hear President Obama reaffirm his commitment to take action on the issue in his recent inaugural address. The Presidential Climate Action Project, which CNT participated in creating, sets out specific, practical steps that the President and Congress can take to reduce America’s carbon emissions and set the country on the path towards a renewable energy future. The President is certainly familiar with the report (I personally put a copy of the freshly printed 2008 version of it in then candidate Obama’s hand) and has indicated his support in the past for many of the steps that it outlines.
Although climate change has become a sensitive issue politically, there are important steps that the President can take to advance the agenda without legislation. CNT encourages him to follow the recommendations contained in the PCAP and communicate directly with the American people about the importance of taking action on climate change and of the economic opportunities presented by making the transition towards a green, advanced energy economy.
The President should also engage with Congress to push for the passing of legislation capping carbon emissions or pricing carbon. These market based mechanisms, by promoting efficiency and encouraging the private sector to invest and innovate in new, green sources of energy, must be part of any comprehensive solution to the problem.
The decision surrounding the construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline presents the President with an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to tackling climate change. CNT urges him to kill the pipeline which does nothing but increase America’s dependency on polluting fossil fuels. Recent severe droughts and extreme weather conditions has reminded everyone of the urgency of the threat that we face. CNT encourages the President to follow through on the promises he has made as soon as possible.
Read the 2012 PCAP Action Plan here>>
Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
Back in August, the Federal Government withdrew its approval for Prairie Parkway, a highway that would have connected I-88 and I-80 at the cost of valuable farmland, clean rivers, and community welfare in Kane, Kendall and Grundy Counties. Despite community opposition, the project remained a part of Illinois’ long term transportation plans due to a $207 million earmark that former Congressman Dennis Hastert secured shortly before leaving office.
The proposed Prairie Parkway would have cut through mostly farmland in Chicago's far west suburban region. (photo credit: Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)
In 2002, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) created a 36-mile long and 400 feet wide protected corridor for the parkway that sliced through family farms and in some cases left homes within feet of the road. This created a great deal of opposition from members of the community. An advisory referendum, in which residents could vote for or against the construction of the parkway, was placed on the ballot in six townships. Five out of the six townships voted against it. The Environmental Law and Policy Council, on behalf of “Citizens Against the Sprawlway” and Friends of the Fox River, used this information to build their defense against the Prairie Parkway.
A lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration claiming that these agencies and IDOT did not adequately consider other transportation options and therefore violated the National Environmental Policy Act. On August 23, 2012 a settlement was reached in a Federal District Court.
Groups like "Citizens Against the Sprawlway" and "Friends of the Fox River" opposed the Prairie Parkway because it sliced through family farms and in some cases left homes within feet of the road, among other environmental concerns. (Image from www.sprawlway.org)
The settlement rescinded the September 2008 record of decision and removed the Prairie Parkway from Illinois’ long-range transportation plans. Residents can now rest assured that neither the vulnerable farmland nor the Fox River will be harmed for the construction of a road with little community benefit. The $207 million originally earmarked for the parkway will now help rather than harm the communities by being used for local road improvements.
Because IDOT had already spent $70 million of the $207 million earmarked for the parkway, the remaining $137 million will be used on the 47 Plus alternative. This alternative project includes the widening of a 12-mile stretch of IL 47 and making improvements to US 34.
Preventing the Prairie Parkway from being constructed sets a great precedent for Illinois’ transportation future. It shows that projects offering very little benefit at a high environmental cost do not belong in Illinois; and money for those projects could be better used on road improvements or better yet, public transportation. Just think, for that same $207 million, we could have the Metra Heritage Corridor improvements in southwest Cook and Will counties.
Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
In July, I was a panelist for “Transportation: The Missing Link for your Clients” at the West Suburban Jobs Council in DuPage County. I, along with representatives from three other organizations, presented ideas to address the problem of transportation, the most difficult barrier to overcome for low-income job seekers in the area. Solutions to this transportation deficiency can be found in the plans outlined in CNT’s report, Prospering in Place.
Prospering in Place links jobs, development, and transit to spur Chicago’s economy, and can be broken into three categories: transit oriented development (TOD), cargo oriented development (COD), and employment oriented transit. TOD uses mixed use development to help make areas more affordable to all income levels. COD, on the other hand, brings jobs to low-income areas by infilling unused or underused land areas. Employment oriented transit connects businesses to transit locations so that individuals without vehicles are not excluded from the job pool. In order to achieve the goals laid out in Prospering in Place, CNT has five recommendations that can be achieved with community support: prioritize development areas, create a regional sustainable communities initiative, align resources, find new resources, and create new funding mechanisms.
Establishing priority development areas for TOD, COD, and employment oriented transit can help reduce sprawl, keep people better connected to their jobs and homes, and create thriving local economies. Mirroring the federal partnership for sustainable communities is critical for economic growth, so CNT calls for directing $1 billion toward transportation to encourage development in these areas. With budgets tight at the local, state, and federal level it is important to ensure that investments support these development plans rather than derail them by building districts that only work for single-occupancy vehicles.
In order to help reach the funding requirements for these projects, Chicago and its surrounding areas should utilize new revenue streams. In Los Angeles, Denver, the Twin Cities, and most recently in three regions of Georgia, citizens elected to tax themselves in order to reach their transportation goals in a timely and efficient manner. These types of innovative revenue streams could be implemented here in Chicago to help make Prospering in Place a reality. Finally, enacting the Brownfield Redevelopment and Intermodal Promotion Act by the General Assembly and the Land Bank Legislation in Cook County, both necessary legislative components, is essential to making this type of development affordable.
With your help, we transform these recommendations from report to reality. Talk with your local government and your legislators and let them know that you support development that encourages transit use and redevelopment of vacant properties. Discuss with your co-workers the benefits of connecting the workplace to a transit stop. And support initiatives that will provide a revenue source for transit to allow Chicago’s transportation system to meet the needs of current and future generations.
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 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.