PI Original Adam Doster Monday September 13th, 2010, 3:27pm

The Promise Of A Modern Transit System

At a time when government resources are scarce, elected officials and candidates in Illinois need to be judicious about how they spend taxpayer money. Mass transit is one excellent option.

At a time when government resources are scarce, elected officials in Illinois need to be judicious about how they spend taxpayer money. They also need to improve the state's sluggish economy by creating jobs and spurring consumer spending. Dramatically enhancing Illinois' transportation infrastructure could kill those two birds with one stone, an idea that's not lost on the state's leading business-backed regional growth organization.

Yesterday, Chicago Metropolis 2020 released a massive and highly-informative report (PDF) titled "Building Our Economy: Transportation for a New Illinois." The title is self-explanatory. To flourish in the 21st century, the report's authors argue that Illinois needs to reassert its position as the nation's leading engine of transportation development and innovation. Doing so will require some extensive, and in some cases politically painful, reforms on the part of officials across the state. But the benefits almost undoubtedly outweigh the costs.

First, some facts. Cities and suburbs drive Illinois' economy, constituting 87 percent of the state's population and 93 percent of the state's gross product. Those residents are served by a transportation infrastructure that is badly outdated and underfunded. Illinois PIRG, for example, has previously estimated that the state needs to spend $2 billion annually for the next 30 years in order to maintain and expand transit fleets and extend routes to underserved communities, a figure Metro 2020 corroborates. As a result, families and businesses turn to the roads, a decision that turns out to be costly. Illinois families spend $50 billion annually -- 18 percent of household income -- on transportation expenses like cars, gasoline, car insurance, accidents, and parking. Business spent another $50 billion in private costs. Lowering that cost by even 1 percent could release $1 billion into the broader economy.

Mass transit and transit-oriented development projects aren't free, by any means, but it's no big riddle why a majority of Chicago suburbanites polled recently say they'd want public transportation improvements to take priority over expressway construction. It's both cheaper and greener. And a world-class system, the report estimates, could enable twice as many Illinoisans to use transit conveniently.

Bringing Illinois' transit system up to speed will take a lot more coordination and dedicated funding than is currently in place. Metro 2020 paints a dismal picture of a system where projects are chosen because of politics and bureaucratic infighting, not because they are worthy of support. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) "has been slow to recognize that transportation is about building communities, not just moving people and goods." IDOT also provides poor guidance to the 2,801 counties, cities, and townships that spend state appropriations on local roads.

The three transit service boards -- the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Pace, and Metra -- focus their energies on bolstering their own operations at the expense of long-term cooperation. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which nominally is responsible for strategic and fiscal oversight over those three agencies, "has limited legal and even less political authority to coordinate service." Lawmakers, meanwhile, provide funding erratically and without any performance measures in mind, instead forking resources over to road builders, many of whom happen to deliver campaign contributions liberally.

Reform, if it happens at all, will begin at the top. Metro 2020 suggests that the governor's office establish immediately an Illinois Transportation Advisory Commission whose role would be to "establish clear, measurable transportation goals and objectives as the basis for spending money and setting policy." Those recommendations would then be passed on to the General Assembly to be discussed and eventually ratified. Similarly, the governor's office could create an Illinois Freight Authority tasked with planning and funding freight shipments. Studies have shown that streamlining that system, and curtailing pollution from stalled trains and overburdened trucks, would result in $1.12 billion in health care savings alone.

IDOT can also begin to recommend projects for funding that have been evaluated "based on clear criteria," including economic gains, safety, and oil use. In 2009, former State Rep. Kathy Ryg (D-Vernon Hills) introduced a bill (HB 2359) that would have established a new advisory committee within IDOT to take into account performance measures when making surface transportation spending decisions. The bill was never released from committee.

Among its various other recommendations (PDF), the report also calls for "leadership discussions" on the role of the RTA. The author's deliberately avoid making specific suggestions on this front but hint that organizations could be merged and fares coordinated. Transit options should be expanded to service rural and urban residents lacking cheap access to work opportunities, medical facilities, and shopping centers, too.

How should Illinois finance and maintain its 21st century infrastructure? Thankfully, Metro 2020 didn't breeze past that sticky issue. Because the need for investments is so immense, funding needs to be reliable and steady. That means revising Illinois' Road Fund formula, which sends revenue from the gas tax and registration fees exclusively to road projects. The authors also hit on a hobby horse of ours -- altering the CTA's rigid funding restrictions -- and floated the idea of a State Infrastructure Bank similar to the idea proposed federally by President Obama.

Most controversially, Metro 2020 recommends lawmakers expand the use of tolling and congestion pricing and double the state's 19-cent-a-gallon motor fuel tax. The latter has remained static since 1990 and could net Illinois $1.5 billion in new revenue annually, although it would proportionately affect middle and low-income taxpayers reliant on cars to get to work and the store. (To be fair, the author's favor a policy that would provide offsets for the state's lowest income tax bracket.)

It's still not clear if either gubernatorial candidate would champion a transportation reform agenda as outlined by Metro 2020. But we know GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady, at the very least, would not support the gas tax proposal. He's gone so far as call for the repeal of the state's 6.25 percent sales tax on gasoline. His issues page offers few transportation specifics other than a vague promise to "secure motor fuel fund revenues so money isn’t diverted away from maintaining our roads, bridges, airports, railways, locks and dams."

His opponent, Gov. Quinn, has campaigned heavily on a capital construction program the General Assembly passed under his watch last year, the first in a decade. "Rebuilding the state’s foundations by investing in public works" is even the top issue of his jobs platform, with nods to roadways, "intermodal transportation," high-speed rail, and broadband internet. One could imagine Quinn, a good government fighter before he took over for Rod Blagojevich, launching some version of the transportation commission, although he's not said so openly.

If the economy is the key issue of the 2010 campaign season, "Building Our Economy" is a map no lawmaker hoping to win an upcoming election should ignore.

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