Bad timing

Man, it’s just like we stepped into a time machine and went back to the 1960s all over again! Cars and trucks are just gliding across acres and acres of shiny new concrete, all around the Chicago area!

“The 12½-mile southern extension of the North-South Tollway (Interstate Highway 355) cuts through prairies, forests, farms and wetlands close to where residential subdivisions, office parks, warehouses and malls are rapidly being developed. The $730 million tollway extension runs three lanes in each direction through more than a dozen communities from Bolingbrook to New Lenox and connects Interstate Highways 55 and 80… Daily traffic projections suggest that about 125,000 vehicles a day will use the I-355 extension when it opens next month, the toll authority said.” — Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune, 22 Oct.

Soon-to-be-bulldozed prairies, forests, farms and wetlands. Yay, progress!

“All lanes on the Dan Ryan Expy. should be open — ending two years of construction on the Chicago area’s busiest expressway, state officials announced Thursday… mainline construction on the $975 million project will be wrapping up a few days ahead of IDOT’s Oct. 31 deadline.” — Monifa Thomas, Sun-Times, 26 Oct.

Huzzah! Oh well, it was $425,000,000 over budget. Whoops. Well, I’m sure the extra money was just sitting in a drawer somewhere. Okay, make that a cash room, the size of a racquetball court,(1) 20′ x 40′ x 20′, filled within 19″ of its brim with dollar bills.(2)

Oh. But wait, there’s this:

Calling Illinois “the poster child for neglect…” “It seems that the state and the governor are walking away from a minimal responsibility to maintain an existing system, let alone dramatically enhance it,” [U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.)] said in response to testimony at the hearing about rusting CTA trains and buses, crumbling viaducts, and miles of streets and dozens of bridges in disrepair in the Chicago area. — Hilkevitch, Trib, today

Oh well. That optimistic, forward-looking, shiny-new-things feeling was nice while it lasted, or maybe it would be nice if I drove. Or maybe lived in Houston — Houston! No zoning! — which at current rates will pass Chicago in population by mid-century, anyways.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board voted Thursday to use light rail on all five of its next rapid transit lines as required in a 2003 referendum… In 2005, residents and elected officials along the planned North, East End, Southeast and Uptown routes were dismayed to learn that Metro analysis showed the cost would be too high and ridership too low to justify federal funding for rail… [T]he five new lines would increase the number of rail cars needed to about 100 from the present 18. Metro officials hope to have all five of the planned light rail lines completed in late 2012. — Rad Sallee reporting in the Houston Chronicle

Man, it’s sad when you manage to get upstaged by Texas — and by Texas government and Texas voters, no less.

Anyhow, next subject. Let’s look at demonstration of why Fix It First is almost always a good idea: a bit of preventive maintenance cost much less than a lot of comprehensive reconstruction; fixing existing infrastructure leverages prior generations’ wise investments; and it puts money into places where people already live and work — we’ve already shaped our lives around what’s there.

The Block 37 “superstation” is $100, $150M over its $200M budget; it’s just the first part of a project that will cost a billion dollars, serve about 5,000 riders a day,(3) and demolish countless historic neighborhoods along the Blue Line.(4) (And which, by the way, will offer no operational advantages to the existing system — the Blue Line and Red Line are already connected, albeit indirectly.) Let’s say that the 5,000 riders a day served by this earn 50% more than average; at a 13.5 minute time savings, that’s $24,605 in time saved daily.

Just the cost overrun on Block 37 could more than pay for the entire $105.7 million Slow Zone Elimination Project on the Red and Blue lines.(5) Assuming 10 minute travel time savings for 196,269 weekday passengers(6) and a time cost of $14.60 an hour (from TTI), that project will save the region’s economy $477,587 — nearly half a million dollars — in time every day. Plus, it will be done in 2008.

1. A visual aid, courtesy Davina at the University of South Florida: (Flickr)

2. Visualization calculated from here.

3. The 2006 business plan projects 1.68M riders a year in 2010 at $10/ticket. Assuming weekend ridership is 50% of weekday ridership, that works out to 5,385 riders a day.

4. Express trains require passing tracks, in particular at stations, where otherwise the express trains would be stuck behind locals. Where are Blue Line stations located? Many in the Kennedy median, and oh no, we can’t possibly remove any road ROW. Some in subways, which are frightfully expensive to tunnel — and the rest, like my own station at Damen, are elevated above and embedded into lovely, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Guess we’ll have to demolish those, then. From the business plan, page 20:

Two 3,000-foot passing tracks would be constructed, one southbound at California/Milwaukee, the other northbound at Damen/Milwaukee. These will allow the express train to pass a stopped Blue Line local train. In addition, the two stations would be reconstructed to accommodate this additional track. At Damen/Milwaukee, the station reconstruction is also planned to eliminate the “jog” in the mainline tracks at North Avenue.

Oh, that pesky Wicker Park. Always in the way.

5. This project is funded, as I understand it, from bonds levied on the assumption that federal funds will be granted, assuming that state matching funds comes through — a double assumption)

6. I’ve already achieved a 10 minute savings, thanks to the completed Milwaukee subway improvements; Kennedy/O’Hare passengers will save nearly 30 minutes apiece, Red Line riders somewhat less.

Last week’s hackneyed analysis was criticized in some quarters for not looking at the particular areas in which service would be cut. I’ve isolated 33 bus routes to be cut which terminate downtown (not counting the impact of cutting connecting services out in the neighborhoods, notably a number of Northwest Side and Evanston routes connecting to the Blue and Purple Lines, respectively); these carried 134,043 passengers on an average September 2006 weekday. Compare that to the 287,000 cars [or 574,000 car trips] entering downtown on an average weekday.

20 of these routes serve either the north lakefront or as downtown circulators — predominantly White, higher-income areas. These routes carried 64,905 passengers on an average weekday. Assume 75% of trips are for work (reasonable, since many run only at rush hours and Sunday boardings are 25% of weekday boardings); that’s 25,962 commuters a day. Add in 60% of the riders on the south/west side (but still downtown-serving; Sunday/weekday ratio 31%) routes to be cut, for 45,081 downtown commuters who are dependent bus routes that will soon expire. Let’s say that 20% of them (9,016) get fed up with the commute and decide to leave the downtown workforce — far lower than the 61% of CTA-riding City Colleges students who will have to end or curtail their classwork due to the cuts.

Assuming the citywide median wage of $36,600, that’s $330 million in payroll gone: nearly $36 million in state and local taxes (assuming 10.8%). And at 220 square feet per employee, that’s negative net absorption of two million square feet of office space — almost enough to vacate AT&T, 311 S. Wacker, or indeed any skyscraper downtown except the Mart, Aon, or Sears.

This would be an initial impact, of course. Over the long run, reducing transportation capacity into the region’s primary job center will make it difficult for employers to justify the significant rent premiums they pay for downtown space — or even to locate in this region. Transit moves half of all people going into downtown, and without those people — or even without a large fraction thereof — countless businesses will see their margins (made on the last few sales, the last few employees) vanish.

Estimates by the Partnership for New York City of the economic development impacts of the Second Avenue Subway say that new jobs and new development capacity — indirect benefits of the project — will amount to 50% more positive economic impact than the already huge direct benefits in transportation productivity (time savings, increased ridership). Applying that figure to the recent Metropolis 2020 study — which showed a 21% return on investment for transit system investments, counting only time savings (increasing to as much as 61% when such investments are leveraged with transit supportive land use) results in ROIs of 53-153%. Not only is this state leaving that huge fortune on the table, but we risk spiraling down a vicious vortex as the process works in reverse: turning time saved into time wasted, job growth and new development into decline and abandonment.


3 thoughts on “Bad timing

  1. God bless the Blue Line improvements. It used to take me about 1:15 to get from the loop to O’Hare and I did it on Thursday in about 40 minutes. I got nailed by the two-station bus shuttle on Sunday night, but it’s a small price to pay to get that trip down to about 30 minutes.

  2. How utterly depressing. In the back of my mind I know our priorities are out-of-whack, but then with a few, er, facts, you remind us just how profoundly bad it is.

    How long is that 1 billion dan ryan good for, anyhow? Ten years?

    And yes. Bury the superstation for future generations to discover, use the money to fully maintain what we have.

  3. Another letter, now in the fax queue.

    To: Governor Rod Blagojevich (217-524-4049; 312-814-6183)
    Sen. Emil Jones, Jr. (217-782-3242)
    Sen. Rickey Hendon (773-265-8617)
    Sen. Frank Watson (217-782-7818)
    Rep. Michael Madigan (217-524-1794)
    Rep. Annazette Collins (217-557-7643)
    Rep. Tom Cross (217-782-3234)
    Cc: Regional Transportation Authority

    1 November 2007

    To the above duly elected officials:

    In July, I sent a letter to your offices asking you to avert an impending economic disaster by passing a stable, sustainable funding source for mass transit options in Northeastern Illinois. Not only have I not received any reply (except from Mr. Cross’ office, which I thank him for), but this issue has remained unresolved. Worse yet, the Senate passed SB 1110, which designates an insultingly tiny slice of revenues to the state’s transit needs while spending lavishly (from revenue not raised from road user fees) on road improvements which will move far, far fewer people.

    In fifty-one hours, this region’s transit agencies — one of the key drivers underpinning Illinois’ economic success — will slip further into what is best described as a death spiral. Service cuts and fare hikes will further hinder the region’s mobility and force more people off transit. Lower ridership, worsening service, and higher fares will force even more off the system. We face a disaster of unprecedented magnitude: just the bus routes which the CTA must cut by January currently move as many or more passengers every weekday than the Kennedy Expressway, the entire Metra commuter rail network, or Seattle’s entire bus system. I can think of no clearer danger to the region’s — and thus Illinois’s — economy, quality of life, and environment, and I implore you to take action posthaste.

    Our existing transit system is already a shadow of what existed fifty years ago. At a time when even cities like Houston are moving forward with massive new investments in transit expansion, Illinois’ refusal to commit to even maintaining its existing system is a nationwide embarrassment. While other cities plan and build for the future, we are content to let America’s second-largest transit network slide into decay and ruin. Indeed, I hear many voices in the legislature and elsewhere cheering on said ruin. This state of affairs is, quite simply, disheartening and appalling.

    The clearest route forward is to implement SB 572. Even if this particular legislation should not come to fruition, this situation requires additional taxpayer support; as the Auditor General noted, “even if you double the fares, it’s not enough to solve the problem.” Transit fares since 1997 have increased much faster than inflation, even while the cost of driving has declined in real terms. Raising fares by 20-50%, which all three agencies have pledged to do, will do nothing to improve the sclerotic traffic congestion or poisoned air and water which currently choke our region.

    I respectfully — but urgently — plead for your support to sustain Illinois’ economy, environment, and quality of life by passing a new funding mechanism that will both sustain existing transit service and bring our mass transit network to a state of good repair. I also urge you to speak to your fellow elected officials, to communicate the urgency of this issue with them. You hold the fate of Illinois in your hands. Please act today to save mass transit in northeastern Illinois.

    Respectfully yours,

    Payton Chung

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