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The Windy City Path: Funding the Future of Transit In Chicago

A transportation analyst sums up how far the city has come on restructuring its transit infrastructure—and how far it has yet to go.

Chrissy Mancini Nichols is a Project Manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) in Chicago. She spearheads the fiscal analysis of MPC’s projects and examines the economic impacts and effectiveness of how public dollars are spent on transit, workforce, economic development, water and housing. Nichols is also a member of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. 

Chrissy Mancini Nichols

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) seems to be picking up momentum in some cities. What cities have implemented successful BRT programs? There have been preliminary murmurings of BRT in Chicago—can you share any predictions?

Around the world, BRT systems are transforming cities, revitalizing neighborhoods, and easing congestion. While early attempts at BRT in Cleveland and Las Vegas have been instructive, no US city has realized the full potential of a “gold standard” BRT system, according to an analysis by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). In fact, only two cities in the world – Bogotá, Colombia; and Guangzhou, China—have achieved this standard.

The MPC believes Chicago can and should be the first U.S. city to develop “gold standard” BRT, and in August 2011 we released Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s New Route to Opportunity, a vision for a 10-route BRT network in Chicago.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in his transition report that establishing a priority BRT route is one of his first-term priorities. Already, the Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago Department of Transportation are implementing variations of BRT on two routes; and in 2012, [they] will study the potential for gold-standard BRT along another top-ranking route in MPC’s study.

What makes urban cycling programs effective? Where are the world’s superior cycling programs? How does Chicago measure up?

Through bike sharing programs, riders rent bikes in one location and return them to another, typically paying two fees: overhead and hourly per use. It is critical that bikes are available, operational, and that a high-quality bicycle infrastructure is in place, including bike lanes, sufficient bike racks, and stations in high-density areas near transit.

Bike sharing programs exist in more than 240 cities around the world. The U.S. Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., started in 2010 and already has more than 18,000 members and 1 million total rides, doubling initial projections.

Chicago’s first large-scale bike sharing program will launch in 2012 with 3,000 bikes at 300 solar-powered stations located in high-density areas citywide. An additional 2,000 bikes and 200 stations will be added through 2014. CDOT will announce the winning bidder who will operate the program soon. Initial funding came from the federal government, but Chicago’s goal is to run a self-sustaining program through membership fees and advertising revenues.

What sorts of challenges do you anticipate regarding the Red Line extension project? How can we best address these challenges?

The Red Line is one of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) premier assets; extending it south 10 miles from its current terminus at 95th Street to the proposed new terminus at 135th Street sends a strong signal that investment in public transit is critical to the region’s quality of life and economic vitality. The extension would increase ridership system-wide, serve an estimated 42,000 people per weekday now underserved by transit, and generate economic development around proposed new stations—all reasons why Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning identified it as a regional priority in its GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan.

The hurdles are significant: securing necessary federal approvals; identifying federal funding at a time of fiscal uncertainty; and determining long-term maintenance and operating expenses. Innovative financing methods almost must play a role, including a public-private partnership to help finance, design, build, and maintain the line, as well as station development and maintenance.

Considering the expected influx of people back into urban centers in the near future, what do you think about the future of transportation and infrastructure? How can we make sure transportation is affordable, sustainable, and a viable option for everyone?

For decades the U.S. has made poor investment decisions in infrastructure and communities, not taking into account the long-term maintenance needs of what we were building, or the long-term changes in population. Despite the billions of dollars that have been invested in our region’s transportation assets, they are not performing to their full potential—an inescapable reality for travelers who experience daily frustrations such as unpredictable travel times, bus bunching, and traffic choke-points. Yet state and federal resources are falling far short of what’s needed to bring our existing roads and railways to a state of good repair—much less expand them to serve a growing regional population and new economic realities.

For example, revenues from the gas tax will continue to decline as people choose fuel-efficient vehicles over gas guzzlers. Congress refuses to entertain an increase in the gas tax—stagnant since 1993—and remains deadlocked on a new federal transportation program. We can no longer afford to spend on projects not justified by high rates of return measured by economic growth, quality of life factors, environmental impacts, and other non-traditional measurements that advance national and regional goals.

To fight gridlock and keep our cities and regions competitive, the U.S. needs a new approach to transportation planning and investment, one that maximizes the use of existing infrastructure, evaluates and captures the value of new investments, and taps creative financing tools. Strategic policy reforms—such as creating incentives for denser development near transit, or rewarding employers who help their employees buy or rent a home near work or take transit, walk or ride their bikes instead of driving—can curb congestion and reduce one of the top household expenses: transportation. Innovative financing tools such as congestion pricing, intelligent transportation systems, and public-private partnerships, can get more from dollars we’ve already spent by increasing capacity, improving safety, and reducing emissions.

Feature photo:  cc/Rares M. Dutu

Marisa O'Donnell
About Marisa O'Donnell (7 Articles)
Marisa O'Donnell is an Associate Editor for Urban Affairs for the Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in social policy and urban affairs.

1 Comment on The Windy City Path: Funding the Future of Transit In Chicago

  1. Interesting to read about the decision making behind large metropolitan transport systems.

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