1) What STAR Symbolizes. The Editors selected the above letter expressing disappointment over the STAR Line for these reasons… among others.

+ Not selecting the STAR to be among the first capital projects may be the most common Beef from the suburbs about    The 2040 Plan.

+ Not explaining candidly why the STAR was not selected is a missed opportunity to explain how retrofitting suburbs    compactly over the next three decades can make transit economical.

+ The lack of interconnectivity between radiating suburban lines also applies to Chicago’s transit. This metropolitan-wide
   obstacle restricts ridership and increases operating subsidies significantly. A useful rule-of-thumb is that improving    transfers between systems can increase ridership 25% and, almost equally, reduce subsidy.

+ Arlington Heights’ downtown is a model for transit-oriented redevelopment. The Village’s separate Master Plan for    redeveloping around the proposed STAR station (2 miles away) also serves as a suburban model. Click here to see the    Plan.

+ Because Arlington Heights was built-out in the early 1970s (before Chicagoland went crazy with big lots and homes), it    also is well suited for retrofits beyond the 1/4 mile radius of a station, which can generate even more riders and    transportation options.

+ The economics of transit has worsened substantially from the STAR study completed six years ago that said a general    feasibility warranted further study. Since then, unsustainable operation costs and Illinois’ broken finances indicate that    STAR, as imagined, needs to be re-imagined using infill redevelopment that is more transit supportive.

Analyzing the above issues one-by-one would make quite a big book… and not a riveting page-turner. To understand everything you might want to know about STAR, you’d have to sort through lots of numbers and graphs. You’d also have to logically unpack some federal transit-speak such as the prioritization cut-off point between “fiscally constrained projects” (which sounds like they got the green light, but actually don’t because they will have too little operating revenue, such as the STAR.) So next, let’s boil down the analysis to a simple soup.

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On the left is the the existing site of the proposed Arlington Heights station at I-90 and Algonquin Road. On the right, is a sketch from the Village's plan for its STAR station. Unfortunately, this visual improvement is not economically sustainable unless enough other towns along STAR line also have more compact neighborhoods and support other convenient ways for riders to get to stations.


2) How STAR Represents Transit’s Sorry Economics: What is 97 to 3?

(Hint: 97 to 3 is not the Bears in some Super Bowl fiction.) Related to the cut-off point in the above transit-speak, one formula describes transit’s sorry economics. And every rider and taxpayer should understand this. Of the funds spent until 2040 on a transit project, only 3% will be capital (mostly from the federal government) and 97% comes from operating subsidies (mostly a small portion of the region’s sales tax which varies by county.)

So of every 3 cents we pay to make the STAR, taxpayer subsidies have to give 97 cents to run it for 30 years. The question then becomes: why would we even spend the 3 cents? Clearly, operating costs are unsustainable.

Taking the viewpoint of avoiding high subsidies, CMAP may have done us a favor in not making the STAR a priority. Yet in The 2040 Plan, CMAP suggests a BRT lane on I-90 as a lower cost option to start the STAR so transit ridership can be built up.

This is a realistic first step to integrate suburban transportation. But the trade-off does fall short when comparing to the original STAR because the proposed BRT on I-90 only intersects one of 4 train lines and only 2 of the 4 Interstates. While CMAP’s suggestion should be well taken, it does too little for suburban transit inter-connectivity, a key to making transit economical.

map9   STAR clearly is not sustainable for taxpayers and METRA, its currently proposed operator. Yet our auto-dependent culture also is not sustainable to households as you will read below. So while we may need a transit system like STAR, what other changes will support it?

This is a central conclusion, sometimes unspoken, of transit analysts: more compact communities create more ways for riders to get to transit so it requires less subsidy.

Instead of working through this conclusion’s mucky numbers and political argument, let’s instead compare our suburban trains to our competition in Japan. The suburban train systems of Tokyo require no public operating subsidy. They are 100% private versus our 100% public.

Since our METRA requires almost a 50% subsidy, how is no subsidy possible in Japan? Simple. Most Japanese public policies across-the-board encourage ridership. This makes for better transit with less or no subsidy. Their gas tax is over 400% higher; encouraging transit use. Compare this to our gasoline tax that has not been increased for two decades. Also, Japan has much higher auto usage taxes. Their employees can deduct over $500 in transit costs per month as a tax credit against income. But until 2009, we only allowed a $125 per month and it was taxed as income.

As a summary anecdote, the Japanese tell a joke on themselves that goes like this: “We make the best cars, then we use them as ornaments for our garage.”

Compare that to our suburban household with teenagers whose ceaseless activities force us to let them have cars that, in turn, radically drive up insurance premiums and other costs. This is money that should be invested in their college or your retirement. Is this right?

Policies that put cars in their place are important. These policies indicate state and federal governments also must make transit economics work better.

And these policies also need to help revise how we redevelop in our country. Owning Japan’s suburban rails are real estate conglomerates that make most of their money from owning developments around the stations. These firms often lead the building of entire towns ranging over 100,000 residents.

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Both these suburban TODs were built by Japan's Tokyu conglomerate, principally a real estate and retail company. It built a prototype suburban railroad with 18 stations during the 1980s. These are the two largest TODs. The photo of the poster on the left was taken by the author in October 2010 after the Tama Plaza station -- built in 1984 -- had just been overhauled and expanded and was re-introduced with an Open House. The photo on the right captures one of the Aodabai station's malls. The two stations are separated by 2 stops... sort of like Arlington Heights and IKEA would be on the STAR. Both Tokyu developments are so profitable that they underwent expansions twice as great and three times faster as downtown Arlington Heights' two decade transformation. When there is enough consumer traffic created by integrated transportation (rail, bikes, pedestrians, buses), then property values maintain themselves better. 

Best yet, Japan’s transit and land use collaboration makes developments more profitable. A study comparing Transit-Oriented Developments (TOD) in suburban Tokyo versus suburban Washington DC found the value capture (appreciation) for Japanese investors is twice better than our nation’s capital.

Curiously, collaboration between rails and real estate companies was common in the United States in the late 19th Century. Chicago has many examples of outlying neighborhoods built by the real estate companies who also serviced them with streetcars. Riverside (below) was made by a land development company with participation by the railroad.

Riverside’s gorgeous downtown from the 19th Century is landmarked; preserved by law. It sets a very high visual standard for redeveloping downtowns. But as we fast-forward into the 21st Century, every downtown redevelopment should be so effective that future generations will want to preserve what we made. Preservation starts with getting the economics right. In the second decade of the 21st Century, a weak economy will force us to start with smaller infill projects and less expensive transit than trains.  We expand this discussion below.

How To Remake Transit Economics So It Works In The 21st Century.

In addition to more people in downtowns, retrofitting neighborhoods around stations will help even more residents use transit. Walking, biking and jitneys can succeed with very little public funds if they are coupled with compact redevelopment. All are made easier when neighborhoods become more compact.

To see what compactness is up against historically, let’s recall the Big Picture. Four decades since the car and sprawl took over the metropolis, transit was on a downward slope. This appears to be bottoming out now. The question for transit in general and STAR in particular is: what strategy gets us on an upward slope?

This requires clear analysis of the politics. Transit’s decline came from decreased ridership and rising costs requiring larger subsidies. Better organized than train riders, suburban constituencies instead got tax dollars used to facilitate larger lots that were further away from workplaces, schools and shopping; all requiring two cars for households (and more if you had teenagers.)

Of course, this greatly increased the costs of running middle class households and even the suburbs themselves; for example, requiring longer roads and pipes. Compactness is a strategy for reducing the costs of both.

Transit’s Strategy: Help the middle class by 12%. Transit investments help households save money. The Center for Neighborhood Technology developed a Housing and Transit analysis. They discovered that households in neighborhoods with transit-rich options saved 12% more than similar households dependent on cars. In today’s economy and for the future, this 12% is our edge to help us grow, pay debts and save for retirement. This 12% helps households climb into the middle class. This 12% also can help cities invest in providing better services. Finally, this 12% even can help small businesses prosper in creating more jobs in the new economy.

Changing Names To Suit The Times. STAR stands for Suburban Transit Access Route; emphasizing the importance of transfers between different transportation modes to increase ridership and reduce subsidy. That’s good… but not enough; given that automobile usage taxes and compact redevelopment also are needed to increase ridership and make transit truly economical.

Therefore, CCC proposes changing the name to STEM, the Suburban Transit Efficiency Multiplier; meaning that communities and developers must work together, long-term, to maximize ridership and reduce household and municipal costs. In short, they must find other ways to yield multiple benefits from the same investment. STEM is smarter for today’s economy.

As stated earlier, STEM multiplies efficiencies two ways. First, inter connectivity increases fare box revenue by over 25% and reduces subsidy. Second, encouraging non-auto transportation options can improve household savings by 12% annually. And it helps municipalities balance budgets since reduced car usage means less road maintenance and more compact communities translate into shorter roads and sewers.


Straight Talker’s 4-Step Formula for a Sustainable STEM To Tie Together Chicagoland


For Step #1: Plan compactly. Municipalities should plan their land around stations more compactly. http://www.vah.com/departments/planning_and_community_development/ default.aspx. As a start, refer to Arlington Heights’ plans.

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Looking southwest, this photo symbolizes Arlington Heights' multi-modal nature: over 2,000 residential units in easy walking distance;  some fancy shelters encourage biking; several PACE bus lines stop on both sides of the tracks; and two multi-story parking garages are just outside of this photo.   Showcasing the mixed-use completeness of Arlington Heights' downtown, the photo on the right contains 6Rs: Retail (Jewel supermarket is just to the right); Residential (the 5 story building on the right and the 18 story building down the street); Restaurant Row (the block we are looking down that anchors the downtown's surprisingly active night-life); and Rail Road (where the author was standing when he took this photo.)

Also, research the emerging standard to measure the sustainability of developments that is sanctioned by the same organization that set the rapidly accepted standard for energy efficiency. Get background on LEED for http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=148 Neighborhood Development.


Step #2: Pass PPPs. Because Illinois is broke and unlikely to contribute its 20% capital to match the federal government’s 80% for transportation investments, many public transit investments must attract private partners. But, partners will operate by private industry standards that seek to lower costs and increase revenue. Can public transit monopolies make those changes? Unlikely. Therefore, the Assembly must pass legislation that gives Public Private Partnerships the flexibility to get the job done.


Step #3:Make it legal. Cities will have to change their laws so land can be redeveloped compactly beyond the immediate vicinity of a station. Where there is residential development of 2 to 5 homes per acre (which does not support any public transit), those communities will need to be redeveloped compactly in coming decades to allow for up to 9 homes per acre (the higher emerging standard to support small buses.)


Step #4: Compete. Municipalities will need to compete with one another to get scarce public and private funds. Since government has limited transit money, it should go to those communities that best use their land to increase riders hip and, thus, reduce operating subsidy. Arlington Heights started this neighborly competition 25 years ago with its downtown redevelopment. http://ccc-chicagolandcitizenscentral.org/ OurLogo.php). (This is noted in CCC’s masthead.)

Please note that the logo of Arlington Heights boasts the motto of “The City Of Good Neighbors.” Apparently, good neighbors make their neighbors look and work better, too.

Conclusion: From Unaffordable STAR To Sustainable STEM. Using transit to tie together our suburbs has multi-systemic problems that, unfortunately, push the STAR so far into the future that it really doesn’t exist anymore.

But short-term steps can start in a few years to move suburban connectivity into a sustainable possibility. A BRT can start along I-90 and reduce its subsidies as towns cooperate to make usage easier.

This goal of future transit only can reduce operating subsidy by tying investments to land use practices that create more compact communities that facilitate alternatives to autos… that, in turn, allow households to spend 12% less and invest, say, 10% more… so households, and their towns, can prosper again.

So that transit infrastructure can help remake our micro-economic competitiveness starting with each household and building upwards, think STEM. It should leverage investments by gradually redeveloping land so it lowers transit’s 97% operating costs and, thus, multiplies economic benefits.

Multiplying benefits by mixing land uses and increasing compactness will convert the now-expensive idea of STAR into a STEM for sustainable growth.

Note to Readers. The Editorial Committee wants to hear your Beef. Straight-Talker will give you common sense advice; uncluttered from covering up the mistakes of the past. Also… if ST said something wrong or could have said it better, let us know. (ST means well, but doesn’t do well always; in part resulting from an old football injury. Football was his ticket through college… and he didn’t go to the University of Chicago).

Send Your Beef To: ST@ccc-chicagolandcitizenscentral.org

If you want strict privacy of your address, that is our policy. If you want anonymity, you got it (but do tell us the town of your residence so we can resolve your specific Beef). The CCC Editorial Committee screens ST’s mail first and, like ST, protects those who do the right things for the region.