Diverging Approach: A Bridge Too Far

Just in case you haven’t been following what’s been going on in Springfield, our state legislature did more in about a week and a half than the previous administration did in four years: weed’s going to be legal and we’re expunging 770,000 minor pot-related offenses in the process; we’re getting more casinos and sports betting; Illinois voters will get a shot at amending the state constitution to legalize a graduated income tax; and, of course, we’re finally getting a statewide capital bill to be mostly paid for by doubling the gas tax (and indexing it to inflation) and hiking vehicle registration fees.

As if that isn’t good enough news, non-motorized transportation modes got a bigger slice of the $33 billion transportation pie than expected, with a dedicated $50 million to basically double the ITEP budget for pedestrian/bike accommodations, a good-sized shot in the arm for transit ($4.7 billion over six years), and a sustainable, annual capital program of $281 million for transit thereafter.

Is that enough? Probably not – Metra says they alone have $12 billion in state of good repair needs, let alone the needs of CTA, Pace, and every other transit district in the state – but nonetheless it’s real money that can be put towards real improvements.

With Governor Pritzker’s signature a foregone conclusion, the RTA appears to be declaring victory, trotting out a new #WeCanAllAgreeOnTransit campaign that you can get in on the ground floor of and get featured on RTA’s social media.

Pretty sure #WeCanAllAgreeOn a hashtag about 15 characters shorter.

A capital bill is a major victory for Illinois, especially one that gets funded by increased user fees for drivers and not by gimmicks used to move around money from elsewhere in the state budget. Of course, even with significant majorities in both houses and the governor’s mansion, everyone loves a bipartisan gesture, so there’s still plenty of dollars dedicated downstate and elsewhere that, honestly, probably should be invested in other places based on need rather than based on clout. Alas, one legislator’s pork is how another brings home the bacon, but not including some sort of performance management system to prioritize spending is a regrettable omission in the overall bill. It’s worth noting that the ITEP process is based on competitive applications, so at least that small slice for pedestrian and bike improvements will be a bit more based on need and effectiveness than, say, Metra extensions to Kendall County.

Yeah, this post is about the Metra extension to Kendall County.

The capital bill earmarks $100 million for construction of a BNSF extension beyond Aurora and into Kendall County. Metra’s currently overseeing a $4.7 million engineering study for the extension, a study that was funded way back when by earmarked funds from U.S. Representative Dennis Hastert (remember him?). Metra estimates the extension will cost about $440 million altogether and projects a net 2040 bump of about 2,000 new passenger trips, according to Metra’s cost-benefit analysis (CBA). The project is one of the top fiscally-rated expansion projects in the network according to the CBA, with a relatively-healthy 68% farebox recovery ratio. (Metra’s systemwide farebox recovery ratio is about 54.4%.) Metra’s CBA assumes the extension will be peak-only, with 4 morning inbound trains and 4 evening outbound trains, with new stations in Montgomery, Oswego, Yorkville, and Plano.

Kendall County really wants this extension, with Oswego appearing to leading the charge. (Their village administrator has done a few recent press interviews, and personally responded to a thread by yours truly a few weeks ago about this very issue.) However, since Kendall County is outside the boundaries of the RTA’s sales tax district, an as-yet-unidentified local funding source for operations still needs to be determined. While a 68% farebox recovery rate is better than Metra’s standard 54.4%, without Kendall County paying into the RTA, Metra’s not going to take a 32% hit on those expanded operations.

It’s understandable that Kendall County wants Metra service: a faster connection to and from downtown Chicago is obviously a major selling point for current and future residents, and politicians have been promising their constituents Metra for decades. Oswego went so far as starting construction on a train station, or at least a parking lot for one. If you build it, they will come, right?

Advocates for the extension are quick to point out that Kendall County is the fastest growing area in Illinois, so investing in transportation infrastructure is key not only for livability and sustainability, but also to nurture new economic development opportunities in a stagnating state.

But take a minute to think about why Kendall County is the fastest growing part of Illinois. Land is cheap, taxes are low, and there’s just enough existing infrastructure to support growth, so that’s where growth occurs when homeowners are looking for cheap new construction. But more growth leads to more demand for infrastructure as two-lane country roads get bombarded by suburban traffic, as rural school districts need to plan for exponential population growth, and as demand for municipal infrastructure like water and sewer exceeds their modest capacities. While those new residents will shoulder much of the brunt themselves through property tax increases and local sales taxes, plenty of those investments get levied on non-residents, especially when it comes to transportation, since a good amount of transportation investment gets aggregated at the county, regional, and state levels.

Then, when the economy hits a bump and takes a cyclical downturn, cheap houses that were nonetheless mortgaged either get foreclosed or trap their owners underwater. Municipal growth projections fall short, and those communities are left holding the bag on expanded but underutilized infrastructure, which means either cutting services or raising property taxes. Those with means get the itch to get out of Dodge, and wouldn’t you know it? All those recent investments in regional transportation, upgrading those two-lane country roads to six-lane suburban arterials, make low-tax, cheap-land areas a few towns west look awfully financially attractive for someone looking to relocate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That’s how sprawl works: a model built on unsustainable, never-ending growth, designed for those with capital to generate more capital by selling the American dream to middle-class families who may (or may not) actually be able to afford it. Is growth at any cost — while inner-tier suburbs continue to shrink — really what we as a region should be subsidizing?

I have nothing against the good people of Kendall County — my stepsister lives in Montgomery — and of course I don’t fault their elected representatives and government staff who rightly want to do the most they can for their constituents. That’s their job. But my job is promoting sustainable transit for suburban Chicago. (That’s a lie; people get paid for jobs. This is more of a hobby of mine.) What’s missing in all the studies and analyses is the macro level picture. I have zero doubts that extending the BNSF to Plano will be a huge financial benefit to Kendall County and its residents, but what’s the impact to the rest of the region? If we’re just accelerating the declines of inner-tier suburbs by making it easier to sprawl deeper into the hinterlands, is it really worth it? When we #InvestInTransit in Kendall County, what exactly are we investing in?

That’s a slippery slope argument, you might say; every transportation improvement requires understanding the delicate balance between those directly affected and impacts to our regional network as a whole. (And some projects just require a few well-connected politicians who support the project.) Besides, you add, Metra’s still projecting a 68% farebox recovery ratio on the extension, so if Kendall County can identify an operating subsidy, or if they end up joining the RTA, can’t it still pencil out? Sure it can. But a few more things to consider:

  1. Metra’s current Lake County reverse commute pilot is targeting a 100% farebox recovery ratio to consider the pilot a success.
  2. Metra’s CBA also includes a $270 million project that would add an additional 18 weekday trains to the existing BNSF. That project — 61% of the cost of the Kendall County extension — is projected to generate 8,600 new daily passenger trips, compared to only 2,200 daily passenger trips generated by the more expensive Kendall County extension. Spending the $270 million to get 18 more trains nets a 12% ridership increase over the baseline condition and is projected to have an incredible farebox recovery ratio of 105%.
  3. Metra’s Station Evaluation Policy calls for a projected station rating of “sustainable” within ten years of a new station opening for a new station to be considered warranted. In 2018, a “sustainable” (above the systemwide median) station needed at least 410 typical weekday boardings. According to the CBA, the extension would generate 2,200 new passenger trips on the BNSF, or 1,100 new daily passengers (assuming each passenger makes a two-trip round trip daily commute) in 2040, which is likely beyond the ten-year horizon of when the extension would open. With each station therefore only averaging only 275 boardings a day, the ridership may not justify new stations by Metra’s own standards.

I don’t want to shut down Kendall County on the issue, and as a whole we should encourage any community that actively wants more transportation options to get things implemented. However, with limited regional funds coming from taxpayer subsidies, we need to be smart with how we spend capital funds to provide new and efficient transportation options to as many people in our region as we can.

And this leads to the far bigger issue: our transit system is not designed for efficiency. The RTA was created to prop up a failing regional transit model with just enough public subsidies to keep buses and trains running. The RTA was ostensibly created to coordinate public transportation in northeastern Illinois, but the only power assigned to the RTA was facilitating operating assistance from sales tax revenues and approving the budgets of the three transit boards. The RTA and the three service boards have made progress in coordinating some plans and occasionally some service, but we’re still far from having seamless integration and the three boards’ state-of-good-repair needs remain an ongoing challenge. Our problem — and, to be fair, this is most definitely not unique to the Chicago region — is that the various boards are focused on individual modes of transit rather than the best ways to serve the region as a whole. Kendall County isn’t asking for transit service; they’re asking for commuter rail service that may or may not be justified. Metra’s not going to do a corridor study and determine service would be better accommodated with Pace buses. Similarly, no matter how successful it gets, Pace has no incentive to ever recommend replacing the I-90 corridor with Metra’s long-standing STAR Line plans or a CTA Blue Line extension; indeed, the loss of Pace ridership would be an active disincentive even if it meant providing more efficient coverage to more riders. (Shameless plug: check out Pace’s I-90 corridor with us on our next Star:Line Social event coming up on Saturday, June 22! More details and RSVP here.)

These aren’t necessarily indictments against the three transit boards who, like the Kendall County politicians pushing for Metra service, are simply doing they job they were tasked with. But we take it for granted that this is simply how things work when we either forget or simply don’t realize that it really doesn’t have to be like this. The RTA was formed only 45 years ago, and while change is scary and hard, it’s not impossible. If it’s not perfect (and it never will be perfect), it’s not like it can’t be changed at some point. “The way we’ve always done it” isn’t even the way we’ve always done it.

What we need is to become more mode agnostic. The best way to serve a particular area may be via bus instead of via train, but since one service board runs buses and one service board runs trains and one service board runs buses AND trains (but not those kinds of trains) that decision often gets made at a political level, not at a performance or efficiency level. Invariably that leads to duplication, competition, and waste, whether that’s Metra and Pace bickering over the Interstate 55 corridor or the CTA dropping $2 billion on a Red Line extension instead of $935 million to modernize the Metra Electric through nearly the same corridor.

(For what it’s worth, as part of a larger effort to diversify Metra’s offerings, I feel Kendall County, along with parts of McHenry County, would be excellent pilot areas for a supplemental Metra-branded bus service that provides direct transfers to/from trains similar to GOTransit’s operations in the Toronto area. Comfortable coach-style buses that operate directly between park-and-ride facilities and rail terminals with timed transfers and integrated fares would extend the reach of the Metra system and/or allow for more frequent off-peak service for a fraction of the cost of full rail service without precluding eventual commuter rail extensions if/when bus ridership warrants. In Kendall County’s case, this could be a bus that picks riders up in Oswego and goes directly to Aurora, where an upgraded station area allows for covered, timed transfers directly to waiting inbound trains and vice versa for the reverse trip home.)

The new capital bill is an excellent step forward for Chicago-area and statewide transportation, full stop. The bill provides a significant amount of capital funds that allow our transportation agencies to put a serious dent in much-needed state-of-good-repair improvements and ongoing annual capital funds to start taking service improvements more seriously. But without a fundamental shift in how our system works — whether that’s at the individual project level or more holistically between the various transit boards and the RTA itself — we’ll always come up short in our sustainable transportation needs.