July 01, 2021
Transit Standards Should Focus on Outcomes not just Outputs
In planning for a post-pandemic world that is increasingly threatened by climate change, transit improvements have never been more important. But RTA’s proposed “performance-based standards” would just maintain the status quo.
ELPC and a coalition of local advocates are calling on Chicagoland’s Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to redo its proposed “performance-based capital allocation structure.” While it seems like a given that public money should go towards transportation projects that provide the most bang for our buck, the RTA’s new structure is all buck and no bang. It focuses exclusively on how quickly dollars can be spent, while neglecting any metrics to assess improved mobility or reduced pollution.
There has never been a more important time for transit to innovate. Our transit system must evolve to meet the needs of a post-pandemic world, as a competitive choice for all types of trips. Transportation is the leading source of climate pollution and other air toxins in the Midwest, motor vehicle crashes kill over a thousand Illinoisans every year, and car-dependency is disproportionately burdensome on low-income communities. Better public transportation can improve public health, economic development, equity, and quality of life in our communities, but we need to spend our limited resources wisely.
Here are some recommendations for how RTA can revise its performance-based funding and project selection process, to move our regional transportation forward:
Prioritize outcomes not just outputs –
Essentially, the only performance measure included in this proposal is the speed of capital expenditures. While swift project delivery is important, it is not the purpose of capital investments. The proposed methodology could create a perverse incentive to prioritize projects that can be delivered quickly, regardless of their relative benefit. For example, a transit agency might pave a quick parking lot, rather than redeveloping that lot for equitable transit-oriented development that could accomplish regional goals related to equity, climate change, and economic impact. We should be incentivizing innovative projects that improve the customer experience, create a seamless journey, reduce pollution, and promote equity.
Substantively improve equity and accessibility –
We applaud RTA’s special focus on equity and accessibility. However, by deferring to the service boards to define what an equitable project is, we will not be using a consistent regional definition, and it’s very likely that agencies would be able to classify 20% of capital funding in those categories without conducting a true equity analysis. Equity and accessibility should not simply be a “box to check” but rather a performance-based goal by which projects are compared across service boards for selection. The Illinois General Assembly recently passed HB 253, requiring IDOT and the RTA to follow a performance-based process for capital funding that considers several issues, and we feel this proposal falls very short of the goals included in that legislation.
Given the incredible opportunity of this moment, and the importance of getting it right, we urge the RTA Board not to adopt the proposed performance-based capital allocation structure. This process does not move the region toward the integrated, customer-centered, and data-driven approach to project selection that the region needs. We will not build an adaptive, resilient, and sustainable transit system by maintaining the status quo. Our organizations remain ready to assist the RTA in creating a truly transformative approach to programming.