RTA must overcome ‘bureaucratic anxiety’, prescribe bold actions to save public transit – Streetsblog Chicago
On February 14, seven local transportation advocacy organizations sent a message to the Regional Transportation Authority, but it wasn’t a Valentine’s Day card. Rather, it was a letter warning that the RTA – which oversees the planning and funding of the CTA, Pace and Metra – has failed in its efforts to create a 2023 Regional Transit Strategic Plan that will meet adequately to the existential threats that Chicagoland currently faces. transit.
Last year, the RTA began work on the document, which will set out the agency’s vision for post-pandemic public transport. During a panel in November, Executive Director Leanne Redden noted that COVID-19 is forcing local transportation agencies to innovate quickly, something they should continue to do as the health crisis subsides, especially in light of the passing of the federal infrastructure bill.
“The task ahead of us is to nurture the spirit of innovation and bring more lasting change to the transit system,” Redden said. “We understand that public transit is an excellent equalizer, that it is an irreplaceable part of our mobility system and that it allows [movement] in the terms and at the scale [nothing] otherwise can.
However, the letter from the seven advocacy groups indicates that the RTA is failing in this task and instead creating a vague and non-innovative plan that will not address the urgent need to preserve and increase ridership and make transportation safe. common of Chicagoland fairer. Signatories include the Active Transportation Alliance, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Elevated Chicago, Environmental Law & Policy Center, High Speed Rail Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council, and Shared-Use Mobility Center.
At RTA’s board meeting last Thursday, the letter was officially read by the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president of government affairs, Jacky Grimshaw. She is a seasoned transit public servant and lawyer widely regarded as a leading lady in the local sustainable transportation scene.
“Our organizations have been asked to participate in the development of this plan, but over the past year we have yet to see any serious effort to address the existing and impending challenges facing our transit system. “, says the letter. “This plan, and the process to develop it, must respond to the needs of this historic moment and, to date, it has not.”
The memo says that on January 26, the RTA brought together more than a hundred stakeholders for a “strategic plan workshop,” including many with extensive experience and expertise in tricky funding. transit and political challenges. “Instead of using their valuable time to elicit meaningful reaction to serious policy choices, attendees were treated as little more than a focus group to test marketing messages around public transit.” Ouch.
According to the letter, workshop participants (as well as respondents to a survey for the plan, open until March 11) were asked “to choose between a fiscally stable public transit system and a tackling climate change… [which is] a false choice and a wasted opportunity.
Other complaints from advocacy groups included “a noticeable lack of racial diversity in the group and among staff and facilitators” at the workshop; poor planning and presentations for the event; and a proposed vision statement and principles for the strategic plan with [that] is so vast, indefinable and devoid of local context that it lacks meaning.
The RTA’s proposed vision statement for the document is “Safe, reliable and accessible public transport that connects people to opportunity, enhances equity and combats climate change”. The proposed principles are “1. Open to change 2. Fairness 3. Stewardship.
The memo says advocacy groups were particularly troubled by the RTA’s repeated use of the phrase that the agency is “open change” [emphasis added], rather than acknowledging that preserving the status quo is not an option, due to “the urgency to change for public transit to survive”. The organizations noted that regional transit ridership is at only 60% of normal levels at best, but public transit is more essential than ever, especially for Black and Latino communities and demographic groups dependent on public transport such as low-income residents, young people, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
The organizations also pointed out that CTA, Metra and Pace have been able to maintain decent service during the crisis (although things have worsened recently due to labor shortages) thanks to emergency cash injections. of the federal government. However, they said: ‘This emergency funding will expire and we need a plan to deal with this uncertain and serious future.
“Nine months into the planning process, stakeholders are expected to discuss real and difficult decisions, including how to plan transit services given the long-term uncertainty of ridership; choices regarding fares and tax revenues to support public transit; what equity measures should guide our regional investments; and governance of our disparate transit services,” the letter reads. “Transformational ideas can be controversial, but that’s no excuse to avoid them. We cannot allow bureaucratic anxiety to lock the region’s transit system into doomsday scenarios of emergency department closures, financial struggles between service boards, and uncertainty for millions of people and businesses.
The letter calls for RTA’s “serious engagement with the public and the communities that rely on public transit the most.” It also urges the agency to verify the planning process recently followed by Chicago’s Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Task Force and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency’s COVID Mobility Recovery Steering Committee for Planning.
“To date, engagement around your plan has been lacking and when it has happened, it has focused only on high-level platitudes about transit,” the letter concludes. “The public already agrees that public transit is essential to [Chicagoland’s] well-being, is an important part of our fight against climate change and necessary for business and economic growth. What we need now are serious and specific proposals to maintain these fundamental roles that public transport plays.
Here is a “transformation idea” that the RTA should consider prescribing as a strategy to increase ridership and better serve transit dependent populations. Boston provides free service on three bus routes that largely serve communities of color and low-income residents, with bus lanes in place or planned to shorten travel times. Chicago should try this approach on high-traffic corridors that serve the south and west sides, like 79th Street, Chicago Avenue, and Western Avenue.
Read the full letter to the RTA here.