Funding feud could lead to transit 'Armageddon,' RTA chief says
Has the cooperation train left the station for Metra, Pace and the CTA?
Daily Herald file photo
John S. Gates Jr.
I have that déjà vu feeling. A special meeting of the Regional Transportation Authority's been called to vote on funding for the 2013 budget.
This time, the meeting falls on Wednesday. There's hope the feud between the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace suburban bus division and Metra commuter rail over about $184.8 million in discretionary sales tax funds plus a $17 million surplus from 2011 will be resolved.
You weren't a hypochondriac if you winced filling up last month. The cost of a gallon of regular was 31 cents higher in September than a year ago, AAA reports. The average cost was $4.07 a gallon across Illinois. That was down slightly a week ago at $3.89 a gallon statewide, but still painful. In the metro region, gas was averaging $4.01 a gallon Friday.
But that was also the idea when the RTA called a special meeting Sept. 28 to supposedly approve how funds would be allocated, only to adjourn after a minute when it became apparent the votes weren't there.
"We couldn't have anticipated the fluidity of this — normally when you have a deal, you have a deal," RTA Chairman John S. Gates Jr. told the Daily Herald Editorial Board last week. "Now you have a deal, but the next day — you may not have a deal."
In what's been portrayed as a city vs. the suburbs battle, the CTA wants 99 percent of the pie. The RTA, which keeps financial watch over the three transit agencies, recommends CTA get 95 percent, or $175.8 million, while Metra and Pace get the rest — $4.5 million each.
And if this imbroglio weren't enough, the RTA is proposing it borrow $2.5 billion to pay for capital improvements and wants to change Illinois law to set how funding is distributed.
Here are some highlights of Gates' interview:
On the power struggle over money: "This is a family feud. It's our job to be the adults in the room and bring them all together and make the system work better for everyone.
"There are six counties, 142 cities, three major agencies, any number of high-profile elected officials, and not all agree on the same thing, the same day. It's three-dimensional chess, so multilateral that it's crazy."
On the funding crunch: "Everybody wants more money, and nobody has enough resources. This system was built to a large measure from federal grants that are no longer forthcoming or are greatly diminished and state funding which certainly is no longer coming. Funding is under pressure in a way it's never been before."
Why it's so bad right now: "There's new management at the CTA and Metra, and a new Chicago mayor. There are a lot of new people in the suburbs. There are a number of regional issues, and all of this has caused a much more aggressive negotiating dynamic on all sides and less understanding of each others' positions."
On Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: "I think the mayor is less focused on regional issues than his predecessor. Mayor Daley spent a lot of time with the county chairmen; there's less of that now. Maybe some sensitivity training needs to be done by the city in terms of what the suburban issues are. The suburbs are far larger than the city and generate far more tax revenue. We're all part of a region. If one part fails, we're all going to fail."
On the Dec. 31 budget deadline: "There's a dynamic going on that could eventually bring Armageddon. If there are no budgets approved by Dec. 31, we stop funding ... the system grinds to a halt. (But) no one wants it to get that far.
On the $2.5 billion borrowing proposal: "About 29 percent of ... rolling stock (buses and trains) is beyond its useful life. Some of this is 20 to 30 years beyond its useful life. The $2.5 billion will get us back to a state of good repair in next five years. It's pay me now or pay me four or five times over later."
On proposed rules on how so-called discretionary funds are divided in the future: "This simplifies the funding mechanism patched together over the course of the last four years. It looks like a spaghetti bowl. It means we stop having this annual fight over the crumbs."
On passing the legislation: "We are drafting it right now. I've spoken to all the legislative leaders — they are very intrigued by this whole thing. I think we'll have lots of sponsors in the final analysis."
One more thing
So what do the transit agencies say to the borrowing plan and the proposed new funding allocations? Here's a look — first noting that all three say they haven't been fully briefed on either proposal by the RTA.
• Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross raised concerns about interest and fees on the RTA debt eating into operating funds. Using operating funds to pay back the $2.5 billion will shortchange the bus service, Ross added.
On simplifying the funding, Ross said, "based on initial proposals, Pace would be shortchanged and we're not in a position that allows us to take a reduction in funding."
• A spokesman for Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford said that if sales tax revenues grow in the future, as the RTA predicts, those new funds will be needed to offset fare increases, not pay off debt. Spokesman Michael Gillis also said it's hard to weigh in on the loan plan because they haven't seen a list of the RTA's high-priority projects.
• Reaction by the CTA, which is led by President Forrest Claypool, has been tepid also. The agency is concerned about the loss of operating funds to debt service and a lack of specific projects in the plan.
Two forums are coming up on the Illinois Department of Transportation's multiyear improvement plan (so pretend you didn't read Gates' statements dissing the prospect of any future state capital funding — ever). The open houses run from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday at the IDOT offices, 201 W. Center Court, Schaumburg, and Wednesday at Romeoville's village hall, 1050 W. Romeo Road. To learn more, go to www.illinoistransportationplan.org/.
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