"Transit cannot continue down the same path and expect different results. Transit leaders need to push for a clearer mission to be successful."
This was the key takeaway from keynote speaker Joshua Schank, managing principal at InfraStrategies LLC, to a group of government officials and stakeholders at a recent transportation forum co-hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Civic Federation, and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
Schank, the former Chief Innovation Officer for the Los Angeles Metro Rail system, noted how transit is often asked to solve various challenges, including traffic congestion, climate change, transportation safety, social and racial inequity and more. He stressed that planning for the future of public transit requires a central goal and knowing which problems to try and solve.
The conference, called "Public Transit in a Post-Covid World: Building a Financially Stable, Equitable, and Accessible Mass Transit System," featured panel discussions with transportation experts, including Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Executive Director Erin Aleman.
The regional transit system in northeastern Illinois is facing a budget shortfall of more than $730 million by 2026. Transit agencies have been relying on federal relief funds to operate, and the funding will no longer be available in a few years.
Panelists shared thoughts and expertise on the future and financial sustainability of regional transit and the fiscal cliff facing transit systems, as well as the role transit plays in spurring economic development and addressing equity and accessibility. They shared examples from other areas of the country and the rest of the world, from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to Hong Kong.
Pictured left to right: Georgia Gann Dohrmann, assistant director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco; Robert Dean, chief strategy and program officer for the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago; Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; and Tom Kotarac, senior vice president of transportation and infrastructure for the the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
All speakers emphasized the value of transit to serving people, along with the benefits transit provides for the environment, congestion management, equity, and economic development.
"We're making historical investments in transportation capital but what are we doing if we can't run it?" Aleman said, adding, "If we are going to change transit, we need to change the way decisions are made."
That governance question, along with improvements to service and rider experience and funding options, are at the center of CMAP's work with stakeholders to develop and submit a Plan of Action for Regional Transit (PART) to the governor and Illinois General Assembly.
Illinois Sen. Ram Villivalam, who sponsored the legislation directing CMAP to lead this work and also served as a panelist during the conference, said the region needs to be innovative and consider structural reforms that best serve the public.
"The commuter doesn't care about the services boards," Villivalam said. "They want to get from A to B."
The deadline to submit the legislative recommendations is January 2024. To learn more about PART, watch this video presentation to the CMAP Board during its meeting April 12.