Experts predict: BoltBus, transit reform, airlines wars on tap for 2014
Goodbye, quiet 2013. What a boring year.
All we had to talk about was a Metra leadership crisis, a scandalous RTA report, sequester fallout at airports and control towers, a new runway at O'Hare, painful construction on I-90, a near-meltdown with RTA and transit agency budgets, groundbreaking on the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, angst over the Illiana Expressway, problems with the CTA and Pace's new Ventra fare system ... I could go on and on.
Will 2014 be as torrid for transportation? You can bet on it, with a state task force set to pronounce on transit reforms and a big decision coming on whether the Illinois tollway will undertake extending Route 53 into Lake County.
Fortunately for you, I recruited two transportation gurus to prognosticate.
Even better, since everyone knows the only true transportation gurus have last names that start with "Sch," I was lucky enough to find Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor, and former RTA chief Steve Schlickman, now with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Schwieterman, who directs DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Planning, made what should be a popular prediction -- lower fares.
"Pressure to bring back some form of discount on Metra similar to the old discounts for 10-ride tickets will mount and lead to a new discount being instituted," Schwieterman said. "The discount created, however, would likely be small, like 5 percent."
Metra 10-ride fares shot up in February 2013, but the move backfired when many riders stopped buying them. Schwieterman also anticipates that "the push for additional express bus service between the suburbs and downtown will continue to gain steam as a result of recent successes of Pace." The suburban bus agency already is expanding its well-used Bus on Shoulder program, which allows buses on some routes to bypass expressway tie-ups by driving on the shoulder.
And for college kids eager to find cheap ways to get between campus and home, Schwieterman predicts competition will emerge. "Another new discount city-to-city bus operator, possibly BoltBus, will launch service in Chicago," he said. "BoltBus is an affiliate with Greyhound but has a completely separate identity and competes heavily with Megabus."
Schlickman, who heads up UIC's Urban Transportation Center, expects the Illinois General Assembly will talk the talk about RTA, Metra, Pace and CTA reform but won't walk the walk.
"RTA and service board legislation will be passed that just tinkers with the qualifications and ethics of the governing boards," he said, adding that he believes major restructuring is in order. "(Lawmakers) should do more and merge all of the agencies into one for accountability, efficiency, better and seamless service coordination and better prioritization of the limited capital funding we have."
"Some form of 'reform' initiative for governance of public transit will move through Springfield, but it will not change the basic power relations between Metra, Pace, CTA and the RTA," he said.
Meanwhile in Congress, the most recent two-year transportation funding bill -- achieved after much angst and endless short-term extensions -- will expire. Don't expect a meaningful solution in an election year, Schlickman warns.
"Congress will pass short-term extensions while struggling with the need to raise revenues for the bankrupt highway and mass transit trust fund," he said. "General revenues will be used to keep funding flowing but without long-term predictability."
Also, Schwieterman predicts a free-for-all in the air. "The battle for market share between American and United airlines at O'Hare International Airport will heat up as American emerges from bankruptcy. This will be good news for consumers," he said.
It's also a year when we may hear if there's a resolution over how far O'Hare expansion will go; the two big carriers want to stay at three new runways, but the city of Chicago is pushing for four.
What else? I'm no expert, but I do know the tollway is due to decide what to do about extending Route 53 north into Lake County up to Route 120. Problem is ... there's a more than $2 billion funding gap, and some solutions -- such as tolling existing parts of Route 53 near Woodfield Mall -- would prompt a regional civil war.
The leadership at the Illinois tollway has proved adept at negotiating choppy political waters, but I think this is the toughest challenge to date.
Got a prediction for 2014 or a comment on 2013? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DHInTransit.
And to stir up emotions over Route 53, here's a letter from reader Bill Dorner of Mount Prospect, who doesn't hold back.
"The politicians have managed to take what is vitally needed for the region, extension of Route 53, and made another circus event," Dorner wrote.
Referring to the expected speed limit on the extension, he added, "45 mph, really, are you kidding? That four-lane highway will become the most dangerous road in all of Illinois. For a change after about 35 years, let's do it right the first time -- a normal six- or eight-lane tollway at 6 cents a mile. Please, someone has got to get back to sanity."
Vroom, vroom. It's just a month away. The Chicago Auto Show runs Feb. 8 through 17 at McCormick Place. To buy tickets, go to http://www.chicagoautoshow.com/.
National Safety Council: New cellphone law has flawThe Itasca-based National Safety Council criticizes Illinois' new handheld cellphone driving ban for failing to recognize cognitive distractions. The council argues that hands-free cellphone use is not safe because drivers involved in conversations don't think about the road while talking. This can lead to a "false sense of security," the council stated, citing more than 50 studies on distracted driving.