Invest in Transit: What our future could hold

Do you remember those “choose your own adventure” books where you made a choice for the main character and flipped to a certain page to learn of his or her fate based on that choice? I certainly do (my kids are currently reading them), and it reminds me of the situation we’re facing with transit funding.

CTA, Metra and Pace have dedicated workforces able to keep the trains and buses running efficiently while meeting the expectations of our riders. However, there is a limit to the extent that their resourcefulness and creativity can be stretched to overcome underinvestment.

Many years of unpredictable and insufficient capital programs due to a lack of a consistent, dedicated funding source will eventually lead to failing equipment, operational interruptions and system ridership losses. But with consistent funding we can enhance the customer experience with more capacity, improved stations, better reliability and maybe even more service.

So let’s go on an adventure and take a look at two possible realities that lie ahead for our region: a future with or without long-term, sustainable capital and operating funding.

INVESTMENT LEVEL – The first question of every public investment adventure is the question about how much you want to spend and what that amount of funding sets you up to accomplish.

With sustainable investment: Stable funding allows agencies to build projects shortly after they are designed, and to take advantage of construction phasing techniques that save money allowing us to invest more in projects that benefit riders.

Without sustainable investment: The stop-go nature of funding means that some projects are designed and then wait in queue for delivery while prices rise and plans change. Other projects never reach the design phase.

WHAT WE DO WITH IT – Once you have the funding, the next adventure is what to do with it!  Do you have enough to do what you need to do or do you need to make some hard choices about what you can’t pay for.

With stable investment: Vehicles are rehabilitated when needed and replaced on time. The system is newer overall and the agencies have funding to make customer improvements, maintain assets and make customer enhancements.

Without stable investment: Vehicles are kept in service longer and rebuilt or overhauled rather than replaced. The overall system is older so operating and maintenance costs rise. The percentage of our transit assets beyond their minimum useful life will grow (currently 31% of assets are in that category).

SERVICE & CUSTOMER IMPACTS – Of course, once you have made the decision about where to spend the money, the riding public gets to experience the consequences (both good and bad) of those choices.

With stable investment: Service is reliable and fast. You can count on transit to get you where you need to go as quickly as possible.  Agencies innovate to stay competitive and can pilot new programs to meet new rider needs. Fares remain stable, so rider costs don’t go up

Without stable investment: Service is slower. Breakdowns in rail cars and buses or problems with aging signal equipment lead to unreliable service. Agencies cannot modernize, innovate or adapt to meet needs of new and changing markets.

ENVIRONMENTAL & SOCIETAL IMPACTS – And once the riding public sees what kind of transit system they have invested in, they start to choose their own adventures and decide whether or not to keep riding.

With: Transit stays competitive. Ridership gains provide revenue that can be invested in busy routes as well as supporting services. Efficient transit modes and enhanced coordination between them contribute to greater regional livability, vitality and competitiveness.

Without: Transit is unable to stay competitive against personal autos and private services. Ridership drops and service is limited. Fewer transit options and less efficient modes reduce the region’s livability, vitality and competitiveness.

The best part of this adventure is that you have the power to make your choice. What kind of future do you want for your transit system? If you imagine a future with long-term, sustainable capital and operating funding then I urge you to contact your state legislators to tell them how important transit funding is important to you. Talk to your friends, neighbors and families that rely on mass transit to join you in supporting for more funding. Encourage those who don’t ride to try transit! The story of public transportation isn’t finished, it’s up to you on what path you choose for it.

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