2007 isn’t just the year of the money in Springfield, it may also be the year of the process — and if you believe some good-government advocates, a better process might be just what the CTA needs for a life-saving cash transfusion. Now that the Capital Investment Accountability Act has passed out of committee and into the full house, here’s the simple version; you can also check out the Daily Southtown opinion piece by Michael McLaughlin of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The bill (House Bill 801, same as Senate Bill 1582) sets up four state transportation goals. Everything the state spends on transportation is supposed to contribute to:

(1) efficiency — meaning reducing delays and unreliability, shifting modes (probably from cars to transit but it doesn’t say) and managing demand,

(2) economic development — that is, putting money back into local and state economies,

(3) integration of land use and transportation planning, and

(4) safety — meaning reducing crashes, increasing security, and encouraging use of “physically active modes” (presumably walking and biking, as opposed to driving).

If the bill is passed, a new Statewide Prioritization Committee will turn these four goals into 5-10 specific criteria for judging all proposed highway, railroad, and transit projects. Judging will be done by each Metropolitan Planning Organization on the local level, a new District Prioritization Committee for each of the state’s nine transportation districts at the regional level, and the statewide committee for statewide projects. (FYI Chicago’s six-county region is one district.) Within limits, the lower-level groups can each choose how to weight the criteria but they can’t just trash ’em.

Top-scoring projects get passed up to the statewide committee, which puts them all together, and on January 15, 2009, the statewide committee is to deliver its “comprehensive project prioritization plan” to the General Assembly and the governor. (If Illinois’ political culture should reassert itself and members of the General Assembly decide to clout through something that didn’t pass muster normally, they’d have to do it in public, but the law doesn’t otherwise constrain them by requiring supermajority votes or anything.)

In other words, a public process to generate rail, road, and bus plans based on stated goals and professional expertise, not political clout. 

Will this complex but transparent and open process inspire more tax support for transportation, including Chicago-area mass transit? That’s one of MPC’s goals, but for the CTA there’s little good news yet, as Sick Transit Chicago reports.