Infrastructure Technology Institute
The 2010 William O. Lipinski Symposium, held this past November at Northwestern University, focused on the challenges and opportunities facing public transit in Chicago, in the Midwest, and nationwide. Attendees participated in a full day of presentations, panel discussions and question and answer sessions with national and international transportation leaders and experts.
Former US Representative William O. Lipinski began the session with opening remarks with a strong statement underscoring the financial need: “If we don’t get an infusion of money on the state and federal level, mass transit is going to crumble. Not only in northeastern Illinois, but throughout this nation.” His assertion was echoed by many presenters in the morning session.
ITI Director Joseph Schofer summarized the confronting transit in the Chicago region, as well: “Mass transit in this region carries approximately 9% of all trips. Key parts of the transit system are 100 years old and need an enormous amounts of maintenance and in some cases total reconstruction. Costs are increasing and revenues are stagnant. Integrated thinking is a big part of the solution to ensure seamless travel for trip makers. Importantly, the future lies in innovation and change. We need to look for new ideas for better service coverage, cost control, revenue enhancement, integrated traveler experience, as well as modernizing design and maintenance.”
US Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) discussed the national perspectives on the challenges facing public transit. Both discussed the need for communicating to government leaders and the public the idea that putting money into transportation is an investment, making the country more energy efficient, producing a higher quality of life, stimulating community growth and raising tax-revenue. “If we want to tread water, we’ll need an 18% increase in funds,” Rep. DeFazio said. “If we want to improve our systems, we’ll need a 65% increase, but ultimately if we want to put everything in a state of good repair, we’ll need to double the transportation investment – $30 billion per year.”
Leadership of Chicago area transportation agencies discussed critical transit issues at the regional level. Speakers were Richard Rodriguez, President of the Chicago Transit Authority; William Tupper, Acting Director of Metra; Thomas J. Ross, Executive Director of Pace; and Kristi LaFleur, Executive Director of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. The concern of each was the combination of rising costs and static revenues. The leaders of each agency offered ideas for improvements and new projects they would start with new money, but funding remained the main barrier to progress. Mr. Ross argued that , “We need to begin treating public transit as a public service, not a for-profit product.” Ms. LaFleur urged the other panel participants that all agencies in the region must “think regionally,” and that no forward progress can really be made if they “continue to work in silos.”
Professor Hani Mahmassani, Director of Northwestern’s Transportation Center, discussed new technologies and concepts available to enhance the travel experience of transit users, including sensor technologies that track vehicle location, systems to deliver real time information to users, and strategies to integrate highway and transit services to provide seamless travel. He urged participants that “the idea is to think mobility, not just transit.”
Dr. Robert Peskin of AECOM discussed the difficulties of continued reliance on sales tax to fund transit and suggested possible solutions, including cost management measures such as productivity improvements, competitive contracting, basing decisions on life-cycle costs, and even considering public-private partnerships.
This year’s David F. Schulz award was presented during lunch to Samuel K. Skinner, who served as Secretary of Transportation and later White House Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush, as well as chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority for northeastern Illinois. Mr. Skinner echoed all presenters saying, “the presentations from this morning are right on. It’s clear that there are needs and the funding mechanisms in place currently are not working.” He also pointed out that there are some good signs: “We have a president who is extremely committed to infrastructure. While we may argue about his priorities versus ours, he has decided this is important – and it is.” Skinner went on to say that now that we have “licked our wounds and celebrated our victories,” we must get back to work and recognize the severe problem we have with infrastructure in Illinois.
In the afternoon session, Glen Weisbrod, president of Economic Development Research Group, Inc. spoke about the changing economy and how the issue of public transit is much broader and more complex than many people realize, with implications for how (and how much) we invest. “Transportation spending – and particularly public transportation spending – allows a particularly high portion of funds to stay in the regional economy. The operators and maintenance workers are local, vehicle manufacturing is not all regional but does take place in America. But of course we don’t justify our public transportation spending now because it is creating jobs, we do it because in the long-term it increases the productivity and competitiveness of our economy, nationally and internationally.”
Gerhard Menckoff of the Institute for Transport Policy and Development discussed the promise and productivity of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), presenting examples from Europe and South America. BRT differs significantly from traditional bus service, including off-board fare collection, level boarding of the bus through many doors, and segregated busways. “Nearly every major city in Latin America has implemented a BRT system, and many countries in Europe and Asia are following. There are some cases, such as in India, where the implementation of the system is extremely poor, which then gives all BRT a bad reputation. The truth is that it is not because of the concept, it is because of the execution.”
Phillipe Payen, Chief Prospective Officer of Veolia Transport, discussed the importance of innovative technologies for public transit, as well as the importance of the idea of “mobility management” rather than the traditional idea of transportation. “Transit is an industry looking for innovations – the target of which is to bring more and more intelligence within transportation to city inhabitants and to every piece of the ecosystem. Digital mobility will allow each city inhabitant to choose and control his mobility needs. The commuter time now is an imposed time, and we have to make it a useful time. It can never be more comfortable than the car, but it can be a lot more useful.”
The last and most highly anticipated panel of the day featured leadership of the Illinois state legislature, including Illinois Rep. Michael Madigan (D-22nd Dist.), House Deputy Republican Leader Timothy Schmitz (R-49th Dist.), Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton (D-6th Dist.), and Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-41st Dist.) Panelists took questions from participants, and discussed the difficulties in securing revenue for Illinois transit projects. All panelists agreed that this is the greatest challenge with moving the region’s transit forward.