Vote “no” on the proposed constitutional amendment to create a “transportation lockbox”

Updated Oct. 10 with more examples of why this could be a problem. Updated Oct. 13 to include CMAP’s review of the amendment. I also posted an alternative version on my new Medium account

Illinois voters are being asked in the current election – early voting has started – to support or opposed a constitutional amendment that would restrict spending of certain revenue sources.

The amendment to the Illinois constitution says that revenues derived from transportation sources – gas and related taxes, license and registration fees, sales taxes for transit, airport fees – can only be used to fund transportation initiatives. (see full text below).

The problem this amendment intends to solve is that sometimes Illinois legislators spend transportation funds on non-transportation projects, people, and services, depending on their priorities at the time – even when existing laws says they can’t.

Your ballot says: “The proposed amendment adds a new section to the Revenue Article of the Illinois Constitution. The proposed amendment provides that no moneys derived from taxes, fees, excises, or license taxes, relating to registration, titles, operation, or use of vehicles or public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, or airports, or motor fuels, including bond proceeds, shall be expended for other than costs of administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes, including the State or local share to match federal aid highway funds.”

A “yes” vote means you want the Illinois Constitution to have this amendment.

A ChiHackNight member asked the #transportation channel in our Slack about this amendment.

Just got my copy of Proposed Amendment to the Illinois Constitution and bicycle and pedestrian paths are perhaps intentionally not listed as possible places to spend transportation tax revenue. Thoughts?

Very little (oh, so little) money is spent on bike and pedestrian things. Despite what you’ve read, there’s no way to guarantee that the recovered money – the small portion that’s being diverted – would be used to enlarge the pot spent on bike, pedestrian, or transit projects.

Existing laws dictate how the money is supposed to be spent

Many of the money categories in the amendment are already protected by either state or federal law. For example, the Passenger Facility Charge that each airline traveler pays to each airport on their itinerary can only be used on certain capital improvement and maintenance projects at that airport. The PFC differs by airport.

And just so we’re clear, there is no such thing as a “road tax” or “driving tax” in any part of Illinois. There is no fee for anyone to use the roads. What gas taxes are supposed to be spent on, first, and then allowed to be spent on, second, are defined in 35 ILCS 505/8 (from Ch. 120, par. 424). 

Bike lanes and sidewalks are rarely called out separately because they are part of streets and roads, which are funded, and I don’t think it’s significant that the constitutional amendment doesn’t list “bicycles” and “pedestrians”.

It’s up to IDOT and other agencies that have jurisdiction over a road to choose to include those things as part of larger road changes. This constitutional amendment won’t change any policies, which are already mildly supportive of bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Priorities and policy makers are the problem

I oppose this on the grounds that it restricts setting state priorities while it doesn’t actually prioritize anything within transportation.

Sometimes there are things that are more important than what the state buys with transportation money.

I have a huge problem with those things it buys, though. The priorities that Illinois legislators have for spending transportation moneys isn’t going to improve.

The state built the MidAmerica-St. Louis airport in Mascoutah for $313 million to serve as a “secondary” airport to the St. Louis airport. It opened in 2000. There are only flights to tourist destinations in Florida; the St. Louis airport never had a capacity problem.

The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to extend the St. Louis light rail through rural areas for 5.3 miles, but is still obtaining funding. However, they are spending about $300,000 annually on something for this project.

Illinois budget line item screenshot

A screenshot of the Illinois FY17 enacted appropriations showing spending $330,010 annually for a project to extend a light rail station to an underused airport that cost the public $313 million.

That is exactly the kind of thing that has to stop and this amendment doesn’t do it. That money can still be spent on bad projects. There’s no shortage of bad projects, but there’s also no shortage of good projects that don’t get funded. States are already spending most of their money on new roads instead of maintaining existing ones.

Since projects are often selected and prioritized to serve political needs, and politicians oversee specific geographies, good projects will still linger in some geographies while bad projects are implemented in others.

In other words, the $300,000 on spending for the light rail extension to the underused airport can’t go to build pedestrian overpasses along well-used multi-purpose trails in DuPage County. It’s going to stay in that downstate legislator’s district because “economic development”.

Staff at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s designated regional planning organization, issued a memo to the board a few days before I wrote this describing that the amendment is “unclear” on so many topics. They cite their discussions with unnamed amendment proponents who explain how the lack of clarity won’t be a problem because the General Assembly can pass laws clarifying that bike lanes won’t need a dedicated user fee if the amendment passes and that it doesn’t impinge on the rights of home rule cities to use gas taxes as they need to.

Spending is based on politics, not performance or need

With the amendment, the state will have to dream up some other transportation project in that district – I see a highway widening in their future. Without the amendment, the state could use that money for an important project in that area, but even that isn’t supposed to happen because the state already has laws dictating how project-specific bond funds can be spent.

This is also the problem with the Illiana Tollway that Governor Quinn so much wanted to build to gain favor with Southland legislators.

Whatever the case is, adhering more to performance (merit) measures on transportation spending – rather than political and district appeasement – is the most important change we can make.

It makes us inflexible

Finally, I question the amendment text. It’s hardly possible or easy for us non-legislators to know if the text covers everything that transportation funds are currently allowed to be spent on. What if there’s some project that turns out not to be an eligible recipient for these funds? Do we wait for the next election when we can get another constitutional amendment on the ballot, or hope that the Illinois Supreme Court will interpret the amendment to favor that project?

In fact, we already have a lot of laws that say how transportation-derived moneys are to be spent. The amendment, then, is a solution to the problem of trusting our state legislators.

The Civic Federation says that money is transferred from the various transportation funds to close budget gaps. “Limiting access to transportation-related revenues such as motor fuel taxes and motorist user fees could put additional strain on the State’s general operating resources” and “similarly affect local governments”. They also said that year-to-year figures of transfers and diversions have been calculated differently.

Additionally, DOT workers’ pensions may be paid for by transportation funds. Does this amendment cover that provision? If not, where else in the state’s budget would their pensions be funded?

Some of the work done by staff at other state departments is funded by some transportation user fees. Would the lockbox cut off their funding supply? A little of the work each department can be considered transportation related, but will the road lobby proponents of this amendment see it that way?

I dislike the inflexibility the amendment creates. Constitutions are meant to protect our rights. I don’t think that there’s a right that gas taxes must be used to pay for roads, while a sliver goes to build new CTA stations.

My writing partner at Streetsblog Chicago, John Greenfield, wrote an article that interviewed leaders at three transportation advocacy groups who were all in favor of the proposed amendment. The Tribune editorial he responded to is against it because it seems like a scam that the road lobby is promoting.

I am not in favor of the amendment.

Divvy overtime fees and most frequent trip distances

Two people check out a Divvy bike in front of 3565 N Pine Grove Avenue, home to residents who sued the Chicago Department of Transportation and Alderman James Cappleman to have its installation prevented. That failed. Photo by John Greenfield. 

Kaitlyn Jakola interviewed me last week for the Chicago Magazine blog, The 312, about how newcomers should deal with Divvy bike sharing. I think I gave some good answers. Stick to the bike lanes by using an app (although that’s hard because so many of them don’t link up) and think about the rules you would follow if you were driving a car (which assumes you know how to do that). Two of the commenters called this a scam. The first stopped there but the second commenter showed some understanding of transportation and economics so I thought that I could reply and it would be taken seriously. They said:

It seems to me like the system is designed to create extra or ‘overage’ fees. Having to stop every 30 minutes and ‘redock’ your bike is prelude to a ripoff. By the time you get comfortable riding and determine where you’re going to go, it’s time to ‘redock’ then…

It doesn’t seem like the commenter knows how bike sharing works: think of a taxi that you drive yourself. The bike taxis are available at predetermined stands around the city. It’s there when you need it and you don’t need to own the vehicle.

Regarding overtime fees… The average trip taken on Divvy bikes is only 18 minutes long, which the Chicago Tribune – part of the same parent company as Chicago Magazine – reported on. That coincides with the average trip distances Americans and Cook County residents take. The Southern California Association of Governments, the federally-designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the nation’s largest regional planning area, found that 80% of trips residents in that region were less than 2 miles long (.pdf). This matches what the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the local MPO, found for Cook County that the average trip distance was 3.0 miles and the median trip distance was 2.3 miles (.pdf). Both studies’ figures aggregate trip mode, so this includes all trips people make by bus, personal automobile, walking, or bicycling. All of the distances are bikeable in 18 minutes.

Mode share by trip miles and trip frequency in Chicago and Cook County

Two tables in this post. Data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2008 Travel Tracker Survey. Download source file (pdf).

Table 1. Number represents share of trip miles taken by that mode. So in Central Chicago (which seems to comprise neighborhoods as far north as Uptown and as far south as Hyde Park), 1.4% of all trip miles are by bike. If 1,000 people take 100 trips of 2 miles each, then 2,800 miles will be by bike.

[table id=1 /]

Table 2. Number represents share of trips taken by that mode, regardless of distance.

[table id=2 /]

Figuring out how many CMAQ projects are for roads

Simplified, the purpose of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant is to fund projects that reduce congestion and improve air quality. This usually means bicycle, pedestrian, and transit facilities and vehicles. But it also means road projects. Like intersection widening, new signals, changes to signal programming, and “signal interconnect” (timing the signals to cooperate with each other to have some free flowing traffic). It can also mean making grade separations at railroad tracks to eliminate backups when trains cross. However, not everything is infrastructure: there’s also marketing, encouragement, analysis, bike sharing, and education.

In a conversation I was having last night with some transportation advocate friends, one joked that most of CMAQ funds road projects. I agreed (probably because the irony of reducing congestion by making higher capacity roads was funny to me), and we moved on to other topics. I set out verify the actual distribution share for the six-county region in Northeastern Illinois.

I spent almost an hour converting the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s CMAQ 2012-2016 projects list from PDF to Excel and then quickly identified every project as being “road” or “not road”. I tallied the amount of proposed CMAQ funding for the projects to get the answer: road projects take up 25.7% of CMAQ funding.

But I can’t stop there! Now that I have CMAP’s data in a spreadsheet, I can get the average of Daily VOC eliminated for road and non-road projects, as well as the estimated cost per VOC kilogram eliminated.

On average, non-road projects have a lower cost per VOC kilogram eliminated ($4,109.37 versus $9,472.90). And non-road projects on average eliminate 19.7 times more kilograms of VOC daily (5.918 kg versus 0.301 kg for road projects).

There are some disclaimers! These are all estimates and not every project has received funding. Also, projects are not selected solely on cost per kilogram of VOC eliminated, or daily VOC eliminated. I’d also like to see estimates on the number of people affected by each project.

You can check my math by downloading my modified projects list (XLS).

How high (and low) expectations can make traffic safer

I have low expectations of fellow Chicagoans who are moving their vehicles on the same roads I cycle on. I expect that every door will fling open in my path, causing me to be doored. I also expect to be cut off at any moment, and especially in certain places like at intersections (where the majority of crashes occur), bus stops, or in places with lots of parallel parking activity. Because of these expectations I feel that my journeys have been pretty safe. My low expectations cause me to ride slower, ride out of the door zone, and pay attention to everyone’s maneuvers.

This is another post inspired by Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us) by Tom Vanderbilt. From page 227 of “Traffic”, about expectations :

Max Hall, a physics teacher in Massachusetts who often rides his collection of classic Vespas and Lambrettas in Rome, says that he finds it safer to ride in Rome than in Boston. Not only are American drivers unfamiliar with scooters, he maintains, but they resent being passed by them: “In Rome car and truck divers ‘know’ they are expect not to make sudden moves in traffic for fear of surprising, and hurting, two-wheeler drivers. And two-wheeler drivers drive, by and large, expecting not to be cut off.”

The scooter drivers have high expectations, and it seems that they’re being met.

This all plays nicely with the “safety in numbers” theory about cycling: the more people who are riding bicycles, the more visible bicycling is, and the more aware a driver will be around people who are bicycling, and the more they will expect someone on a bicycle. Awareness means caution.

It’s difficult to gauge the safety of cycling in Chicago as we’ve no exposure rate: we don’t know how many people are cycling how many miles (nor where).

A cyclist waits for the light to change at Milwaukee Avenue and Ashland Avenue. 

Exposure rate

Exposure rate in the sense I’m using it here means the number of times someone is in a crash or injury for each mile they ride. We know how many crashes and injuries are reported each year (in the Illinois Motorist Crash reports), but we don’t know how many miles people ride (neither individually nor an estimated average).

There was a limited household survey of Cook County residents in 2008 from CMAP, called Travel Tracker, that collected trip distance information for all trips members of a household made on all trip modes – I haven’t looked into this yet.

It would be highly useful if the Chicago Department of Transportation conducted ridership counts at the 10 intersections with the highest crash rates. And if the 10 intersections changed the following year, the new intersections would just be added to the initial 10 to track the changes of the initial 10. This would be one step closer to being able to determine a “crash rate” for each intersection.

Why Amtrak’s not on time

“Over the last 12 months, Amtrak operations and equipment contributed between 11 and 18 percent of the total delay.  Likewise, “third party” causes of delay, such as inclement weather and police activity, contributed only between 6 and 8 percent of the total.  The delay that Amtrak ascribes to the “host” railroad, on the other hand, averaged 79 percent of total monthly delay.”*

Amtrak operates some commuter trains in California.

Breaking down delays attributable to the host railroads (across the national system):*

  • Freight train interference (25 percent)
  • Passenger train interference (this really means other Amtrak trains)
  • Commuter train interference
  • Slow orders not related to weather (“likely in response to track conditions”)
  • Signal delays

And the reason Amtrak can’t report: Continued underfunding at a time when ridership is increasing. Congress makes yearly allocations to Amtrak and without an expectation for stable long-term funding, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation can’t make long-term investment plans or seek alternate, additional funding (like bonds). Recently received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding gives Amtrak a necessary booster shot to clear out a backlog of maintenance. But this doesn’t solve the year-to-year fight for dollars.

An Amtrak train emerging from Chicago Union Station (CUS).

State of Illinois-supported routes (from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) show a 20% increase since 2007. The Illinois Department of Transportation has spent millions of dollars in the past few years to upgrade track, crossings, and signals to improve travel times. You can see the effect on ridership when you improve service. I think this makes Illinois a strong contender for high-speed rail stimulus money not yet awarded.

*Delay information comes from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s 2009 Freight Snapshot draft report.

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