This is the first installment in a three-part series for Chicago Matters: Growing Forward.

This year’s Chicago Matters–the award-winning multimedia public affairs series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust with programming from WTTW 11, Chicago Public Radio, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter–will examine how the choices we make today impact our environment and the future of our region.

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The Rev. Oscar Carrasco of Hyde Park spends up to 60 hours a week at his job in northwest suburban Elgin and about 20 hours commuting there and back.

The traffic on Interstate 94 is heaviest on the morning trip near downtown. On the way back, the Chilean-born Carrasco is snared in traffic near O’Hare International Airport that looks more like a used car lot than a major highway.

An Elgin-district superintendent of the United Methodist Church, Carrasco drives in large part because he must visit 72 member churches once he arrives in Elgin. He is one of tens of thousands of people who do not use public transportation in the Chicago region.

It’s a quandary for decision-makers trying to boost regional ridership in order to avert doomsday–”a specter many thought had passed in January with the passage of the state’s transportation bill some deemed the most significant in 35 years. Despite the funding boost in January, the regional transit system remains woefully inadequate. In 2007, rides on the Regional Transportation Authority system–”which includes the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace–” made up just 5.6 percent of all trips taken in the six-county Chicago region, according to a study by Chicago Metropolis 2020. Some advocates say the figure needs to be more than twice that in order to sustain the region long-term.

The reluctance among public officials to invest in system maintenance, enhancement and expansion, combined with a lack of people riding public transit, has stopped the region from reaching these levels.

A Chicago Reporter analysis found that the region continues down this path at its peril, facing the prospect of losing more than $750 billion in lost worker productivity and excessive fuel consumption if congestion costs were to increase at the same rate during the next 30 years as they have since the 1980s.

The Reporter analysis also found that, to avoid such staggering losses, the region needs to face up to mounting challenges:

* During the past five years, the RTA diverted $315 million from its capital budget, which would normally pay for expanding the transportation system, and put it toward day-today operating expenses.

* Only one of the five collar counties has included increased public transit ridership goals in their long-range transit plans.

* A capital bill approved in September by the Illinois Senate would allocate a little more than $400 million for public transit projects during the next five years. That’s less than 4 percent of what the RTA requested for the same time period.

* The CTA has the country’s largest fleet of old buses, with 476 buses that are 16 years or older. That’s 90 percent more than any other system in the nation.

* The CTA’s aging bus fleet disproportionately affects African Americans, particularly those in West Side communities like Austin where residents rely heavily on buses.

The RTA puts the price tag at $57 billion in additional capital spending during the next 30 years for the region to dig itself out of its predicament; others put the figure even higher.

State Sen. John M. Sullivan, majority caucus whip and a member of the Illinois Senate’s transportation committee, says the stakes for the region are clear. “The important thing to keep in mind when we are talking about transit [is that], if it is not properly addressed and funding and management is not there, over time, if it implodes and crumbles, the impact on the state of Illinois is going to be a catastrophe,” he said.

The road to the catastrophe Sullivan describes is paved with congestion.

The Texas Transportation Institute, a research institution at Texas A&M University in College Station, has identified the cost of congestion for cities throughout the country each year from 1982 to 2005. The institute calculates the cost of lost hours of labor from workers like Carrasco who are stuck unnecessarily in traffic and the cost of excess fuel consumed.

Commuters in the region have seen their average hours in traffic triple from 15 hours in 1982 to 46 hours in 2005.

Overall, the Chicago region has seen its congestion costs explode, increasing more than tenfold from about $380 million in 1982 to nearly $4 billion in 2005, according to the institute.

The Reporter used the average percentage increase of the congestion costs–”nearly 11 percent–”and the institute’s data to project the congestionrelated losses during the 30 years from 2005 to 2034.

The total: a whopping $754 billion.

Sidney Weseman, division manager of the RTA’s strategic and long-range planning, said the numbers could be even higher because the Chicago area’s wages are higher than the national averages the institute uses and because the percentage of trucks on the roads in the region is also higher than countrywide norms.

Jim LaBelle, vice president of Chicago Metropolis 2020, said the damage would extend beyond congestion and have broader financial consequences. “If we don’t invest in the transit system, congestion gets worse, travel time gets longer and it’s harder for people to get around,” he said. “The region becomes less convenient and less desirable [for people] to live and for businesses to locate.”

Anumber of factors have contributed to the current situation. Some maintain that the area’s counties have not made a sufficient commitment to public transit. Of the five collar counties in the region, only McHenry County put specific figures with higher numbers of public transportation rides in its long-term transit plan. The others either assumed continued low levels of transit usage–”in Kane County, the figure was 3.3 percent of all rides–”or made general statements about transit’s value and importance.

Another key element: the absence of a capital bill in Illinois since the “Illinois First” bill expired in 2004. Starting in 2003, the RTA has dipped deeper and deeper into its capital funds for operating expenses, peaking with a total of $115 million in 2007.

In all, the agency spent $315 million of capital funding for operating expenses from 2003 to 2007.

Stephen Schindel, RTA’s financial development manager, said the expenditure of capital funds has meant decreased attention to long-term projects, but he added that transit legislation passed in January should mean the end of capital funding diversions.

Still, the upcoming capital bill doesn’t appear likely to substantially change those dynamics. The Senate passed a version in September that called for $25.4 billion, of which $425 million was set aside for capital funding for public transit for the next five years.

State Rep. Kevin Joyce said elected officials across Illinois recognize the need to boost the state’s infrastructure but added that the Senate bill’s price tag was so high that the bill would never pass the House. “Let’s stop the gamesmanship and get to work on something that will work for every part of the state,” Joyce said.

Michael McLaughlin, director of regional policy and transportation at Metropolitan Planning Council, an organization that promotes sound planning and development policies in the region, said that politicians shy away both from frank public conversations about the region’s transit needs and from establishing standards about how projects should be funded.

For evidence, McLaughlin cited 11 new projects for Metra, Pace and the CTA that are eligible to seek federal funding, with the total cost of $8 billion. But he said the amount of federal money devoted to new transit projects nationwide is just $6.6 billion in the next six years.

“We have to –¦ pick the two or three [projects] that get the biggest bang for the buck,” McLaughlin said, adding that Illinois, as compared with nearby Ohio and Wisconsin, does not have objective criteria by which to choose possible transit projects.

An additional consequence of the lack of forthrightness, McLaughlin added, is that municipalities end up spending as much as $50 million conducting feasibility studies for projects that are unlikely to materialize for many years. “We waste hundreds of millions just because we are afraid to say, –˜Here are the two or three; this might be good in 20 years.'”

Future concerns notwithstanding, some say the region has to deal with an aging, and consequently less attractive, fleet of trains and buses.

The Illinois auditor general noted in its 2007 report that the CTA, Metra and Pace all operated with systems that were older than the average peer systems around the country–”in some cases, much older.

The report noted that the CTA rail fleet’s average age in 2004 was 20.7 years old, or about 34 percent higher than the average age of 15.4 years for other systems of similar size.

Metra fleet’s average age in 2004 was 24.8 years, or about 22 percent older than similar systems’ average of 20.3 years, the report said.

And the National Transit Database shows that in 2006 the CTA had 476 buses that were at least 16 years old. This is the highest figure in the country, and more than 75 percent higher than the MTA Bus Company in New York, which had the second highest total with 251 buses in that age category.

The aging fleet has higher maintenance costs associated with it than newer vehicles, a source of another drain on CTA funds, according to the auditor general. And people living in black communities like Austin have shouldered a disproportionate burden.

In 2006, nearly 30 percent of commuters from Austin took the bus–”the highest figure in the Midwest and the third highest in the country of more than 2000 geographic areas, called Public Use Microdata Areas, by the U.S. Census Bureau. Bus riding levels were almost as high in other predominantly black communities like Auburn Gresham, Washington Heights and West Englewood.

The fix for the region’s transportation needs will undoubtedly be costly. In 2007, the RTA made its pitch for capital improvements. The costs for maintenance from 2007 to 2011 were $10.3 billion, the agency said.

But the first five years were only the beginning of what seemed to some like a jawdropping sum: $57 billion–”or nearly $2 billion per year–”of capital investment during the next 30 years.

Of the proposed projects, $39 billion, or two-thirds, were slotted for maintenance and enhancement, while $18 billion was allocated for expansion.

The agency said the public would reap benefits worth nearly twice the amount of investment but did not specify in its report how many more riders would use public transportation if the agency received all the money it requested.

Some transit advocates say the total cost to the region needs to be even higher than the RTA figure to reach the point where 12 percent of rides in the region are taken on public transit; others like LaBelle of Chicago Metropolis 2020 said the money invested in transit needs to be connected to regional plans that allow people to live and work near public transit options.

“We have to look at how the region is developing [so that] more people are living near transit,” LaBelle said.

Daunting obstacles aside, sources of optimism exist.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning conducted a massive survey about travel behavior–”an important step, some say, to understanding and changing travel patterns and behavior. Others point to the Reconnecting Neighborhoods program, a multiagency collaboration that seeks to provide better transit and retail options in former public housing areas. The CTA recently announced plans to retire the two bus types that made up more than 75 percent of the older buses.

And there is the hope in the form of commuters like Jackie Schulz and Nicol Lee. The perky Schulz commutes daily from her home in Elmhurst to Deerfield, where she works as a dietitian. She leaves home early every morning by 7 a.m. in order to get to work by 8 a.m. and leaves early enough in the afternoon to spend quality time with her newborn daughter, Jessica.

But Schulz’s delicate balancing act is often foiled by morning traffic. “I physically get tensed up, and my posture changes [when I hit traffic],” she said. “By the time you get to work, you have a tense back because you’re so hunched over.”

Schulz said she is unaware of viable public transportation options but would be willing to change if she had one. “If it was the same amount of time and not more, I would take it because it would still be a little bit productive and relaxing [doing some] reading,” Schulz said.

For her part, Lee is a former downtown commuter who recently made the switch to public transportation.

For years, the nonprofit executive and mother of two spent dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars weekly commuting, parking and eating on her way from northwest suburban Algonquin in her 2005 Nissan Pathfinder. But when her family decided to shed a car in late 2007, Lee decided to take public transportation for the first time since her childhood in New York. Now she gets a morning ride with her nanny and child to school before taking the Metra to Union Station.

On her way downtown, Lee reads novels, ticks off work tasks and listens to her MP3 player. Occasionally, a smile fills her face when she passes by a spot where she used to be snarled in traffic.

“It’s added 10 more years to my life by not having the stress of sitting in traffic,” Lee says.

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....