[ Contributor Robert Munson sent me the below as his take on how Chicago should reform its transportation governance structure. Comments will be enabled on this post and you can email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org – Aaron.}
Photo by NASA
But before we try to fix the financials, we first must fix the region’s politics. Illinois’ insolvency and behind-the-scene manipulations make CMAP, a state agency, poorly suited to invest new funds. CMAP suffers under the political confusion created by having two Boards. This article looks at how each represents different levels of government and how both restrain regional progress.
CMAP’s proposal is an opportunity to shape a new, suitable regional funding authority that gives taxpayers better value and serves commuters far more effectively. If this new authority is elected directly, it then will have the legitimacy to achieve these three ingredients of sustainable transportation.
1) Balance taxes and usage fees so households have economical options.
2) Invest with greater return for public goals and private interests. And,
3) Minimize confusion caused by a deteriorated state and institute suitable regional governance.
How Two Heads Are Worse Than One
Chicagoland’s obstacles are captured in a helpful history of our region’s planning, “Beyond Burnham.” This book’s concluding chapter summarizes three strategic problems in Chicagoland’s 20th Century planning. Two problems are manageable today. First, the separation of land use and transportation planning has been merged into CMAP; so most players, at least, know the benefits of tightly integrating the two functions. Second, CMAP has helped stabilize the historic tensions between Chicago and its suburbs.
The third problem blocks progress: the region’s lack of an organized constituency. My analysis concludes there is no constituency because there is no elected regional body. This was intentional by two powers-that-be: chiefly, the state’s Department of Transportation; and suburban mayors. Each has its own Board to govern CMAP. (If this seems confusing, link to CMAP’s org chart and you will see why.)
CMAP formed after a compromise ten years ago to merge two agencies. Each intended to protect its turf. Today that compromise — and the power politics behind it — blocks us from the adequate regional governance required to build economically the next generation of infrastructure.
The ultimately powerful Board is the Policy Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Mandated to spend Uncle Sam’s money, the MPO is controlled by the Governor through Illinois’ Department of Transportation, a singularly backwards bureaucracy restraining the nation’s key hub from updating itself. While allowing the region’s planning process to show trappings of democratic participation, the MPO can pull the levers of power… much like the man-behind-the-curtain.
The poster-child example is the Illiana Expressway. Unjustified by rational criteria, the Illiana’s approval was strong-armed by the MPO and symbolizes the current regime’s failings. The MPO recently reversed CMAP’s other Board that had clearly decided the Illiana should be a privately funded road in the “2040 Plan” that was produced by an open, public process and was published back in 2010. I call this reversal the “Illiana Incident.” The Incident shows signs that interest group machinations got to the Governor and turned this un-needed expense into a regional taxpayer priority.
I served on CMAP’s Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) from 2008 through 2010. I did not fully understand the MPO’s power. I could not penetrate its opacity. Its “Memo Of Understanding” is cryptic, not showing the ruling hand. I observed two MPO meetings… and got no further feeling. But during 2010, subtle signs indicated road-building constituencies were asserting themselves. When the Illiana was forced back on to taxpayers in 2014, my naivetÃ© vanished. It became clear that the man-behind-the-curtain also had a hammer that shattered illusions of democratic planning.
That hammer must be laid to rest permanently before taxpayers agree to a new tax. The Illiana Incident is a lesson to taxpayers about how new taxes will be wasted. With the highway largely unpopular and hugely ineffective at resolving the region’s transportation needs, reaction to the MPO’s 2014 reversal spread like a media wildfire. Here is a synopsis of editorials. While that website has an anti-sprawl agenda, the media’s complaints echo a brazen affront to our emerging sense of regional sovereignty.
The Illiana Incident also offers a window into how MPO spending decisions perpetuate the monopolies of the 20th Century agencies that sit on the MPO’s Policy Committee. These agencies tend to give short shrift to the innovations proposed by CMAP staff. In the big picture, a narrow-minded MPO lost us the decades when infrastructure was cheaper and makes today’s investment much larger.
Wasting taxes is condemnation enough. But… the MPO’s authority also is not justifiable when you consider that Uncle Sam is retreating from transportation funding relative to when he mandated MPOs to protect his 80% of capital to Illinois’ historical 20% match. But with a broke state, few expect Illinois to make its match.
We see other signs of the MPO’s lack of accountability. Consider the top five priorities listed in the consensus “2040 Plan,” three were road projects and two were rails. As 2015 ends, the three road improvements (plus Chicago interchanges not even listed) will be nearly complete. The two rail projects are mere plans sitting on a shelf without funding. With the region’s passenger rail plan again sacrificed, a balanced plan can only be executed if there is autonomy from the state’s apparatus. Controlled by the man behind-the-curtain, CMAP cannot invest new regional funds to achieve benefits for the greatest number.
So, how legitimate is it for a state DOT-controlled MPO to exercise ‘de facto’ veto power on Chicagoland’s transportation spending? Not very.
To be direct, Illinois uses the MPO and federal power to thwart regional initiative. The MPO looks like a dinosaur perpetuating 20th Century sprawl and cannot direct the next generation of transportation investments. Any new tax money should be protected from the MPO, which would just build more business-as-usual boondoggles like the Illiana.
Without enough autonomy, CMAP will continue to be burdened by its poor parent. Illinois’ de facto insolvency emerged after decades of short-term decisions and recurring corruptions. To understand taxpayer’s likely resistance to CMAP’s proposed new sales tax, let’s see what debt has wrought. Bad state governance saddles each Illinois citizen with a cumulative debt of $21,130. This same opinion piece in “The Wall Street Journal” references also the Cook County Treasurer’s report in which this debt is much larger and close to unbearable for Chicago residents.
While these numbers are not widely known among the electorate, they are clearly felt. Rapidly being shaped is a citizens’ consensus that their state cannot solve problems merely with more money. The proverbial “throwing good money after bad” now eats food from too many families’ tables. Although still largely a public intuition that voices itself in gutter-low approval ratings for legislators and knee-jerk reactions to tax increases, the public’s distrust makes approval of CMAP’s tax unlikely.
Simply put: Illinois has abused the public’s trust and, quite reasonably, they won’t willingly give the state controlled MPO more money.
CMAP’s Second Head Lacks Authority… Intentionally
While the hidden and more powerful Board undermines legitimacy, CMAP’s other Board is visible but minimizes regional coordination. Controlled by suburban mayors, this visible Board does a good job synthesizing the needs of a diverse region. But to protect their turf back in 2005, suburban mayors insisted that CMAP plans were to be “advisory.” While politically necessary a decade ago to merge the region’s dueling agencies, that compromise holds us back from the path we need to travel as a region. The state’s insolvency forces taxpayers to demand results…not advisory plans that gather dust on the shelf. Mayoral restrictions on CMAP are fundamental to how it is not suited to produce the higher level of results required to invest new taxes.
Consider the commonly held planning principle: the closer transit investments are aligned to compact and mixed uses, the higher the ridership and higher return on investment. This alignment increases transit’s operating revenues. Suburban downtowns prosper and property tax revenues increase. Everyone scores.
But because CMAP has only the power of persuasion, its “advisory” plans do not require changes in comprehensive plans as a prerequisite to making a transit investment pay-off sooner. The 2005 scoring area was so large that a municipality still could spend regional money on, say, a new train station without first having a believable plan for compact redevelopment. The scheme with Illinois’ DOT/MPO allows a town merely to wait its turn and it would get its grant for a station or arterial. Protecting this distribution scheme gets played out in the collaborative appointments of County representatives to the MPO and CMAP’s Board.
Too subtle to describe fully in this article, I saw how CMAP’s Board enforced its 2005 deal. Senior staff suggesting tight alignment were forced out. Similarly in early 2011, the CAC that I served on (and also uttered such blasphemies) was replaced by new citizens, hand-picked by CMAP’s Board members.
Uncle Sam’s gradual withdrawal from transit and Illinois’ insolvency make aligned spending even more imperative today. Our multi-decade backlog of maintenance and very little money creates urgency. The policy nexus between transportation and land use must be precise if it is to serve households economically. Instead of merely waiting their turn for grants, towns today must compete for new capital.
As one example, new tax funds should be allocated to communities whose viable TOD plans will increase transit revenue and, thereby turnover that capital for the next town’s station down the line. This accelerates the three decade process that transformed Arlington Heights’ mid-Century downtown into a 21st Century model for its neighbors. Today, quicker returns on investments are how Chicagoland will do more with less capital.
If this basic principle isn’t on the table while discussing new taxes for infrastructure, then taxpayers should end the discussion because they will not get maximum results.
To summarize, we should view CMAP’s two Boards as blocking us from overcoming Chicagoland’s two strategic obstacles: Illinois is losing legitimacy to tax for and approve new initiatives; and, CMAP’s plans lack authority to maximize regional return on investment.
Making The Most Of CMAP’s Proposed Sales Tax Increase
Aside from the MPO’s fatal flaw of not acting in the region’s best future interests, I like CMAP. It certainly is an improvement over two non-communicating agencies. CMAP’s staff is competent. It produced a great long-term plan that won top national awards. Everyone I know who worked on it was gratified to help the undertaking. CMAP transformed a historically fractious region by sketching a potential consensus for progress.
Today, CMAP is on trajectory to win the trust of most jurisdictions. In the four years since the “2040 Plan” was approved, CMAP built productive relations with over 100 jurisdictions to help them plan. Maximizing its power to persuade, CMAP has a convincing Executive Director and a beefed-up communications staff. Most municipalities now understand the regional consequences of their land use. Progress.
But despite its good work in a tough spot, CMAP is not suited to the daily job of reinventing the public’s transportation business. With a narrow skill-set and subjected to vetoes by the state’s road-building agency, CMAP should stick to its knitting as the region’s long-term planning agency. Because it is controlled by a drunkard parent, the state of Illinois, CMAP is unfit to invest public capital well, especially in a time of fiscal constraint.
Here’s how to convert our transportation lemons into some semblance of lemonade.
We start by shifting new funds to a new Board. Consider the Twin Cities; driven by similar political parallels. Their MPO also is controlled by the Governor. Taxpayers of this famously “good government” region viewed their MPO as unworthy of making transit deals that used a new sales tax. So in 2008 they created a Counties Transit Improvement Board. It has revitalized the Twin Cities transit by investing to complete three light rail lines, two central stations and a suburban line. Best yet, Minneapolis and St. Paul seem to have learned faster than pre-2008 practices about how transit investments should be leveraged with land uses to promote economic redevelopment.
Chicagoland’s Board must do the same and also innovate big-time. Because we are broke, we need to develop flexible and entrepreneurial organizations that invest public funds so they employ private sector efficiencies that serve everyone. For this, a Board must isolate itself from the state. Otherwise it will have trouble attracting private capital, since no competent company wants an insolvent partner.
So, an independent Taxpayers Regional Investment Board should be created. TRIB will be substantially more effective by including these three innovations.
- TRIB’s directors will be elected. This shapes a broad regional constituency and helps affirm that taxpayers’ money will be well spent. To protect voters from the cynical distortions of state and federal campaigns, candidates should be non-partisan and only small campaign donations from individuals accepted.
- TRIB’s authorities should include usage fees, not just taxes. The sales tax predominance has proven ineffective at reducing bad transportation habits. TRIB will find the right economic mix of transportation investments (carrots) and usage fees (sticks).
- TRIB will be the taxpayers’ and riders’ advocate. Our monopolistic transportation systems block better returns for new investments. TRIB’s job is to advocate policies that level the playing field for all transportation subsidies so multi-modal, market-based options will emerge faster. TRIB also will respond to rider and commuter complaints and synthesize them to develop solutions. TRIB takes responsibility.
However the new Board emerges, Illinois’ irresponsibility toward transit must be solved. To get perspective on transit’s governance problems, read this study comparing six of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Its conclusions for Chicagoland start on page 20. The study serves as a good reference to sharpen our solutions.
For the next six months, CMAP’s sales tax proposal is unlikely to get a fair hearing within the frenzy of every special interest protecting its slice of the Illinois budget. CMAP will alter its strategy for the 2016 session. Supporters should consider tactics that give CMAP more autonomy from an increasingly illegitimate and counter-productive MPO. Good luck!
In the meantime, local progress is possible. We first should take very seriously the Cook County proposal to leverage federal loans, much as Los Angeles has for its transit renaissance. Part of the new County President’s ambition to revitalize transit, this carefully-crafted proposal deserves action. If the Cook County Board shirks this duty during the next few months, then this proposal also should go back to the drawing board so it can win taxpayer support. Since Cook County represents over two-thirds of Chicagoland’s transit trips and most the chronic car congestion, a Cook County adaptation of the TRIB concept can serve as a prototype for the seven-county region’s evolution.
But whatever new tax is proposed, it must offer the public this simple deal: any new tax or usage fee will buy discernible improvements in transportation and increase accountability. If we believably make every initiative work towards a new deal that puts taxpayers and transport users as the head of their systems, then Chicagoland’s connections will be made.