Three Transit Campaigns: Do They Compete or Complement Each Other?

CTA: Let's not take our resources for granted
An RTA funding campaign poster from 2005 on the CTA echoes a similar message about raising funds for transit. Campaigns now are more focused on transit as a necessary component to population and economy growth. Photo: Salim Virji

As the Chicago region grows in population, we’re going to need to provide efficient and affordable transportation options in order to compete in the global economy, and that’s going to require more and better transit. People who live near transit pay less in transportation costs as a portion of their household income, and have better access to jobs, compared to those who don’t. GO TO 2040, the region’s comprehensive plan, calls for doubling 2010 transit ridership levels by the year 2040 as a means to support population growth and reduce carbon emissions.

Chicagoland has a large network of CTA and Metra rail transit routes, but the network’s mileage and ridership are lower than they were in the 1950s, even though the regional population has grown.  Compared to other metropolitan regions we spend less per person on transit service and our population is growing slower. Two years ago, a Center for Neighborhood Technology study found that more housing is being built far from train stations than near them, and that still appears to be the case today.

The CTA increased train service three years ago, but to fund this, the agency cut bus service dramatically. Metra added a significant amount of service in 2006 by launching new lines and extending existing ones, but there has been no increase in service since then. Pace, the suburban bus network, is the only local transit agency in Chicagoland that’s currently adding service. Their first Pulse express bus route will run along on Milwaukee Avenue from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood to the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles.

While most people agree that the region needs expanded transit service and better-maintained transit infrastructure, and that we need more funding in order to accomplish that, there isn’t consensus on how to raise that money. In the last year or so, local nonprofits have launched three different transit-funding initiatives.

One year ago, the Active Transportation Alliance and CNT kicked off the Transit Future campaign, with a focus on extending CTA train lines by raising funds at the Cook County level. Transit Future is largely inspired by Los Angeles’ Measure R campaign, in which L.A. County voters approved a sales tax. The new revenue is used to provide local matches for federal grants that bankroll transit projects.

The Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s FUND 2040 initiative proposes a small sales tax increase to pay for regional transit infrastructure projects: addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance and building new lines and stations. Priority would go to projects that meet multiple goals in the GO TO 2040 plan.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Accelerate Illinois campaign also calls for fixing our crumbling transportation infrastructure, but it’s a statewide initiative, and it also calls for better maintenance of roads. The campaign, which is endorsed by a diverse coalition of road builders, contractors, the three transit agencies, railroads and various businesses and nonprofits, doesn’t identify a particular funding mechanism.

To come up with more funding at the county level, most likely via a new sales tax, Transit Future will need to win the support of a majority of Cook County commissioners. The initiative is currently endorsed by eight of the 17 commissioners, including former mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García, according to Transit Future campaign manager Ronnie Harris. However, as was the case the last time Streetsblog reported on the campaign, most of the commissioners seem to be prioritizing the local pension crisis before they turn their attention towards funding transit, Harris said.

Three U.S. Representatives whose districts include parts of the county are backing Transit Future: Mike Quigley, Robin Kelly, and Jan Schakowsky. The Regional Transportation Authority and the CTA are also on board, but Metra and Pace have been slow to endorse the initiative, Harris said. “We’re continuing to galvanize support from Chicago aldermen and major corporations like ComEd and McCaffery Interests,” he added.

When FUND 2040 was launched last fall, then-CMAP executive director Randy Blankenhorn said a quarter-cent sales tax increase would generate $300 million for transit infrastructure, fund stormwater management, and even pay for access parks for the Bloomingdale Trail. Blankenhorn is now leading the Illinois Department of Transportation, although he hasn’t been confirmed by the state legislature. On Tuesday, he announced a listening tour to “discuss the state’s infrastructure needs,” after which IDOT would create an investment plan. Unfortunately, his boss, Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed state budget would slash transit funding while increasing funding for roads.

None of the three transit funding campaigns emphasize increased service on existing transit routes. However, if new gas tax or sales tax revenue is earmarked for transit, that will generally mean greater support for CTA, Metra, and Pace operations. For example, that might allow the CTA to restart the 11-Lincoln Avenue bus or relaunch the 31st Street bus route.

Yonah Freemark, a project manager at MPC, said the nonprofit supports the Regional Transportation Authority’s Stand Up for Transit campaign to guarantee adequate operations funding at the federal and state levels. The initiative lists revenue sources other states have adopted and highlights the fact that the Illinois gas tax has been frozen at 19 cents a gallon since 1991 and, due to inflation, the revenue from the gas tax is now worth half of what it once was. State spending on transit has also decreased because state transportation revenues have decreased by a third, the federal government hasn’t increased transit funding, and construction costs have increased.

Freemark said that MPC staff are going to Springfield next week to lobby state legislators to support increased transit funding. He added that they’ve already contacted 70 lawmakers and sent them maps and fact sheets that specifically address their districts’ needs.

All of the transit funding campaigns have the same goal: more funding for infrastructure projects, including new and extended lines, new and renovated stations, and bus rapid transit, yet none of the initiatives specifically advocate more transit service.

MPC’s Ryan Griffin-Stegink said the three campaigns complement each other rather than compete. “The bigger question is that infrastructure is competing with so many other things on the state level, including pensions, and anything we can do to get the public’s attention on infrastructure is a win.” He noted that the three initiatives focus on different geographic areas. Transit Future focuses on Cook County, FUND 2040 includes the seven-county region, and Accelerate Illinois addresses the entire state.

If you’re wondering which of the three campaigns you should support, the answer is any and all of them. The underlying theme of all three is that we need Cook County commissioners and state senators and representatives to take action by crafting and passing a transportation funding legislation. Contact your elected officials and let them know that you want a future where Chicagoland residents can get where we need to go in a timely manner, rather than falling behind our counterparts in other metro regions.

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