Smart communities invest in transit. It’s Illinois’ turn to get wise. - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Smart communities invest in transit. It’s Illinois’ turn to get wise.

From Silicon Valley to D.C., business coalitions have organized to advocate for improved transit funding. Their campaigns typically go straight for the economic argument, because they understand that a strong transit system benefits their bottom lines. Here’s what’s worked elsewhere—and what shows promise in the Land of Lincoln.

Flickr user Dan Reed (CC)

Sales tax increases in Los Angeles have helped fund the car-centric city's transit network.

It’s no secret that people are seeking a wider range of transportation choices now than ever before, especially Millennials. The American Public Transportation Association found that Americans under the age of 40 are 13% more likely than those over the age of 50 to list convenient alternatives to driving as an extremely high priority for state government.  And a report by American University found that the principal forces driving young workers to consider relocating were congestion and limited mobility options. In a time where talent is highly selective and highly mobile, good public transit can be a deciding factor.

Countless studies have shown that investing in transit is money well spent. Locally, every dollar spent on transit has been estimated to yield anywhere from $1.21 to $3. Even on the low end, a 20% return on investment would be hugely successful in the private sector. But high-quality public transit isn’t cheap.  And once a region has built a robust transit system, significant ongoing resources are needed to keep it in good shape. Strong voices encouraging adequate maintenance and expansion are important for transit to get the funding it needs. In other regions, the private sector has taken notice.

Across the country, business groups have formed coalitions to lobby their state legislators and insist that transit gets the support it needs. They understand that a fast and efficient transit system delivers access to a deeper pool of employees and customers. Companies know failure to invest in transit puts them at a disadvantage in retaining talented workers. Business coalitions in other regions give us a sense of what an effective private sector-led effort can look like.

Utah’s Fast-Growing Front Range Demands Investment

In 2015, a group of businesses united under the banner of the Utah Transportation Coalition advocated that their state government to pass House Bill 362 to increase transportation funding.  The Utah Transportation Coalition is not a small citizens’ lobbying group. This is a notable alliance of over 50 banks, construction companies, aerospace firms and other businesses along with planning organizations and chambers of commerce calling for increased government investment in public transportation. They launched an extensive campaign to raise awareness about the bill, posting frequently on social media, holding press conferences, and authoring articles advocating for the increase in taxes. Their efforts were successful when, on March 12th of that year, Utah state senate voted 20-8 to approve the bill, followed by the House’s vote of 44-29. The result was an increase in the state gas tax by 5 cents per gallon and the creation of a 12% tax on the average wholesale price of fuel at levels over $2.45 per gallon. The law also allowed local governments to enact a quarter-cent sales tax to meet transportation needs. Those funds are critical in addressing the funding shortfall identified in the Utah Unified Transportation Plan, and in expanding bus and bicycle infrastructure as well as covering road and transit maintenance.

Silicon Valley Gets It

In Northern California, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has seen continued success in communicating the importance of transportation to California legislators. With a history stretching back to 1977, the 350-member strong organization has played an integral role in advocating for transit in the region. Recently, the group worked with Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Jim Beall to pass SB1, which includes provisions granting $300 million to fund expansions in commuter and intercity rail, investment in light rail and $250 million for other transit capital or operational support. SVLG also sponsored SB 797, which would place a measure before voters to create a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund Caltrain operations, maintenance and capacity improvements.

Car-Centric LA Moving Towards Transit

Los Angeles has historically been a battleground in the fight for improved transportation. In 2007, businesses, labor groups, and environmental advocates convened to form MoveLA in a rare cooperative effort to advocate for a bill to increase transportation funding. LA residents are too familiar with the gridlock that has become a common sight in the Southern Californian landscape. This bill allowed the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to place a referendum on the November 2008 ballot for a half-cent sales tax increase. The LA Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Business Federation, and the Los Angeles Business Council, representing hundreds of thousands of member businesses, were instrumental in drumming up support for the measure by signing petitions, funding advertisements, and speaking at public events on behalf of the campaigns. As a result, two-thirds of LA residents voted in 2008 to pass the sales tax increase and grow LA’s transit system mileage from 120 to 236 miles of fixed guideway with 97 new stations. The success of the measure emboldened MoveLA and the LA Metro board to advance Measure M in November of 2016, which added another half-cent sales tax designated for transportation. The organization is currently fighting an attempt to repeal SB-1, the 2017 transportation funding bill that increased the state motor fuel tax by 12 cents. SB-1 currently provides $5.4 billion annually for transportation infrastructure, including $750 million for transit.

D.C.’s Transit is Too Important to Fail

The spectacular failure of the Washington D.C. Metro has been making headlines for years. Now, the capital region’s business community is stepping up to task to save one of their most valuable assets. The MetroNow coalition was formed in January of 2018 to lobby Virginia and Maryland state governments to pass bills that would provide permanent funding to Metro. The group is comprised of numerous businesses and nonprofit organizations including the Greater Washington Board of Trade, The Greater Washington Partnership, the 2030 Group, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The group’s efforts were successful. In March 2018, the two states along with the District of Columbia each voted to support the measure and provide their shares of the $500 million a year to fund Metro.

Cincinnati’s Workers Deserve Reliable Commutes

In Cincinnati, congestion was extending the time it took for people to drive to work and disrupting the efficiency of many workplaces. That’s why—after receiving concerns from multiple members—the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce created the Transportation Business Coalition to examine the issue of public transit and advocate for a multimodal transit network that can connect the region.  There was a wide consensus among the business community that an efficient transportation system was crucial to attracting, retaining, and allowing employees to commute easily to work. Traffic was seriously hampering the ability of these businesses to function.

In March 2018, the Transportation Business Coalition released a transportation vision called The Connected Region, which calls for expanded transit networks, infrastructure maintenance and integrated technologies to improve the effectiveness of the system. The coalition also helped develop questionnaires during elections about key policy issues including transportation, and conducted a financial assessment of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. Today, they are currently evaluating the merits of a sales tax levy and trying to prepare it for a referendum.

It’s Time for Chicago to Step Up

Public transit is not simply a matter of moving people from point A to point B. It is a bridge to opportunities for both employer and employee. Chicago is leading the country in corporate relocations, and we have the highest-educated workforce of any big city. Yet 31% of our transit system is not in a state of good repair. At current levels of funding, that number will only grow. We’re already seeing a how underinvestment impacts our daily lives. Our region is fortunate to have an engaged and responsible business community. Now is the time for our civic leaders to come together and support one thing we can all agree makes our region more prosperous.

Explore "Transit Means Business," stories and statistics behind transit's vital role to Illinois' economy:

*new original research and data from Metropolitan Planning Council experts

*case studies from businesses such as McDonald's, Bosch, CA Ventures, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hamilton Partners, the Hatchery Chicago, PowerReviews, Revolution Brewing, The University of Illinois Chicago, Urban Juncture, the Illinois Medical District, Southern Illinois University, Testa Produce, Method and MB Financial Bank

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