Mass transit systems (the CTA, Metra and Pace, not to mention the dozen or so other mass transit agencies in Illinois) are just about out of money. They aren't making a big stink about it like they did in 2005 (and they were remarkably successful at framing the entire debate over the state budget, at least in Chicago, where the headlines after the budget was passed in 2005 read: CTA won't shut down), but they are broke.
Why are they broke? The federal government has money to pay for the invasion and occupation of Iraq for years to come, but no money to help cover the cost of buses and trains. As of 1993, the feds stopped paying for any operating support for mass transit. That was a dumb idea. But, what can you do?
They are also broke because the source of their income -- the local sales tax -- is not rising. As you savvy Internet readers go buy things online, you dodge the local sales tax. And, as we move more towards a service and tourism economy, the sales tax (which is for the sale of goods, not services) generates fewer dollars. Ridership is up all over the place, but fares only cover half the cost of the service, and the taxes (the local sales tax) that supports mass transit is flat or shrinking.
We should raise the tax on gasoline or parking so that people who drive pay more of the cost of transit, since really, fares on the CTA or Pace or Metra should be a lot closer to free than they are, as every rider on transit makes life better for everyone else, while every additional driver makes life a little more congested and thus a little worse for everyone else. Ideally, drivers would pay a lot more, and riders, well, maybe they'd even get paid a little something for making life better for everyone else. Or at least they'd ride for free. Illinois took a good step in that direction in the late 90s with Illinois FIRST, a big capital bond that paid for a lot of CTA capital needs like new buses and train stations that is financed by a higher fee for a license plate. That means drivers paid for the cost of infrastructure (lots of roads, but some transit). Our operating budget should move in that direction as well.
In any event, we've got a state policy debate on how, sometime before early 2007 when the FY08 budgets must be created and it becomes very clear and very public just how broke the transit agencies are, we can come up with a lot more money and (here's the fun part) make sure it is spent wisely.
Today's subcommittee hearing of the Mass Transit Committee of the Illinois House started that policy discussion. Triggered by Representative Larry McKeon's HB4663, the subcommittee on Transit Management and Performance discussed how to implement performance measures.
This is an important and intriguing debate, because part of building the case for spending more money on transit (a very good thing, especially transit that's powered by electricity and not Saudi Arabian oil) is to get the best bang for the buck. And right now, the members of the Mass Transit committee, led by Chairwoman Julie Hamos, are looking for good ideas.
Here are a few I have and I encourage you to add your own to the comments and send that over to Representative Hamos' office.
1) All data collected by any transit agency should be available online. It should be open source. Every little bit of data gathered, especially the actual trip times of each run of each bus and train, should be available online.
2) Employee data should be online as well, including salaries and benefit packages of every employee. There's a widespread suspicion that some agencies pay too many administrators too much money. If that suspicion is unfounded, then data will evaporate that objection. If it's true, then that needs to change.
3) The state should set up somewhat arbitrary standards and force every mass transit agency to use them, so that comparing different agencies will be easy. Ideally, every agency in the country would use the same standard.
What else should the state do to make sure that transit agencies work better?
I should mention that Representative McKeon's main point was that transit agencies should be planned according to a consumer-driven process. He wants to start the process by determining what the consumer expects (reliable, on-time, cheap and fast travel, presumably), and then work backwards from there in order to figure out what the agency needs to do to make that happen and what reporting processes need to be created to make sure the agency is executing the plan that leads to consumer expectations.