Chicago, suburbs at impasse over transit funding
Will the train of transit unity reach the station? Pace, Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority are in a standoff over discretionary revenues.
Daily Herald file photo
Allow me a few observations about the latest showdown at the transit corral.
• The current standoff between Pace, Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority over less than $6 million in funding is indicative of weightier turf wars to come as the city/suburbs divide re-emerges.
Not only are Pace and the CTA on track with a universal fare card, they've got a name for it. Dubbed "Ventra," the new system lets people pay for rides on both services by a simple tap of a card at fare collection points. There are three options: a transit and prepaid debit card, Ventra tickets for single-ride or one-day passes, or bank-issued credit and debit cards. It debuts next summer.
• The friction is surfacing when sales tax revenues are trending up for the first time in years. So now that there's a little more meat on the transit bones, there's actually something to fight over.
• You can never have too many mixed metaphors in a column.
This could be the week we get a Kumbaya moment and all three agencies agree on how to divvy up $184.8 million in so-called discretionary revenues to the relief of the Regional Transportation Authority.
The RTA missed a Sept. 15 deadline to formalize how much the CTA, Metra and Pace will receive in revenues in 2013. The board met Friday but adjourned quickly when it become apparent the CTA is still at odds with Pace and Metra over funding.
"The next few weeks could bring out the worst in the region's cash-strapped transit agencies as the political battle intensifies," predicts transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman.
"It's pretty clear there's monumental financial problems at the CTA," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said. "I'm sorry for them, but I didn't create them. The suburbs didn't create them. They have to be held accountable and make tough decisions. They're trying to overreach and grab more than they're entitled to."
Here's how CTA President Forrest Claypool sees it.
"The CTA is merely seeking to maintain its existing level of funding," Claypool said via email. "While we understand other transit agencies would like additional resources, those dollars should not come by reducing CTA's historic share of discretionary funding."
To recap, transit derives most of its revenue from fares and sales taxes. Most of the sales tax pie is divvied up by a formula: 56 percent to the CTA, 32 percent to Metra and 12 percent to Pace.
Then there's discretionary funds, which are left to the RTA to allocate. The CTA usually gets about 99 percent. But in the 2013 budget, RTA planners recommended 95 percent, or $175.8 million, for the CTA and $4.5 million each to Metra and Pace.
Claypool told the RTA it's not enough given the agency's $162 million budget shortfall, noting the CTA has received 99 percent of discretionary funding in the past five years.
Meanwhile Metra and Pace say they are counting on the promised $4.5 million.
"It's very important to us," Metra Government Affairs Officer Sam Smith said. "These are funds that could go to new rail cars ... to fixing bridges, viaducts. Every dollar is important, and that's what we're fighting for."
Also up for grabs is $17 million in surplus funds from 2011. Surprise, surprise — that also is in dispute.
RTA Chairman John S. Gates Jr. remains optimistic.
"We're close — we're just not there yet," he said Friday.
I'm not holding my breath. Twelve votes are needed to approve budgets, yet five out of the 16 directors on the board are Chicagoans who have the CTA's back, conventional wisdom says.
And this isn't just an RTA fight. It also involves the region's political heavyweights like Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cronin, who appoint RTA directors to their $25,000-a-year positions.
Cronin said he recognizes Claypool and Emanuel didn't create the problem. But he describes the standoff as "bullying."
"The money is collected from all the taxpayers in the region, the majority of whom reside in the suburbs. Why should we subsidize the CTA more than we already are?" he asked. "They seem to care little for their neighbors in the suburbs."
CTA officials contend they slashed a 2011 budget deficit from $277 million to $160 million, partly by reducing head count in office and managerial jobs. The agency provides 82 percent of the region's rides but gets 49 percent of the region's funding, they note.
"Lingering tensions about how sales tax dollars are distributed almost assures that the politicking among the transit agencies will remain fierce," predicts Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
But RTA Director and former CTA chairman Carole Brown says her support of the CTA receiving 99 percent of discretionary funding isn't a Chicago-centric position.
"I feel very strongly we should do what's right. That may be perceived as meaning I represent the city, but I honestly have a desire to make sure transit is appropriately funded in the region," she said.
Gates thinks it's not a suburbs-versus-city hatedown so much as a reflection on how little the state and federal governments are contributing to transit infrastructure.
About $30 billion is needed for repairs and replacements across the system and "these huge deferred costs are piling up," he said. At the same time, "operating budgets are extremely stretched."
So what happens next? "This is a regional agency," Gates said. "We have to reach a regional consensus."
What do you think? Drop me an email at email@example.com.
O'Hare-bound drivers should watch out for delays on I-190 through Nov. 15 at night. The city is resurfacing the roadway and ramps. The work stretches from westbound I-190 from Bessie Coleman Drive to Terminal 1, and on eastbound I-190 from Terminal 3 to Coleman Drive. Lane closures will last from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Wonks, rejoice. IDOT will hold a series of public meetings to help plan future road programs. You can opine and bond with traffic engineers from 3 to 6 p.m. at the following locations: Tuesday, Hilton Garden Inn, 4070 E. Main St., St. Charles; and Wednesday at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn, 800 S. Route 31.
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