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updated: 10/28/2013 7:47 AM

Are suburbs getting short end of transit stick?

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  • RTA Board Chairman John Gates answers a question from panel moderator Ellee Pai Hong Friday during the John Noel Public Transit Conference, held at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook. Listening are DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin, center, and Sean O'Shea, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pat Quinn.

       RTA Board Chairman John Gates answers a question from panel moderator Ellee Pai Hong Friday during the John Noel Public Transit Conference, held at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook. Listening are DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin, center, and Sean O'Shea, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pat Quinn.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

If you pay $4.50 in tax for a sweater at Oakbrook Center, should some of that money go toward a midmorning Metra train on the BNSF? Or should a portion pay for a faster ride on the Blue Line?

That's the essence of an age-old suburban-city turf war over transit funding that recently reignited.

"Transit needs are significant here," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said Friday at the John Noel Public Transit Conference in Oak Brook. "Tax dollars for transit should directly benefit those who pay them."

The argument is that while the Chicago Transit Authority reaps the lion's share of transit's sales tax dollars, most of which come from the suburbs, Pace and Metra get shafted.

The counterpoint is that the CTA provides more than 83 percent of regional transit ridership.

RTA Chairman John S. Gates, who participated in a panel discussion with Cronin, acknowledged, "there's not enough discussion about regional equity. Most of the money comes from the suburbs and most of it is spent in the city."

But CTA officials like Director of Strategic Planning Michael McLaughlin explained the agency doesn't just transport Chicagoans. "The CTA serves 35 suburbs in Cook County. It's an integrated system," he said. McLaughlin also noted that the Cook suburbs and Chicago combined bring in the most dollars, not the collar counties.

So how do the numbers break down, and how does funding work?

Metra, the CTA and Pace receive around half of their operating revenues from fares, but most of the remainder comes from sales taxes. It's calculated using unbelievably complicated state formulas that incorporate geography into divvying up the spoils. However, a 2008 state law change raising the sales tax left the disposal of some of the money up to the Regional Transportation Authority. That's meant power struggles the last two years.

A look at 2012 sales tax dollars received by the RTA shows that 27.5 percent of that revenue derives from Chicago. The biggest chunk, or 50 percent, comes from suburban Cook County. Elsewhere, DuPage County contributed 8.6 percent, Lake 5 percent, Will about 4 percent, Kane about 3 percent and McHenry not quite 2 percent.

There are two different ways to interpret those numbers. Cook County, including Chicago, delivers 77 percent of transit funding. Or -- the suburbs combined provide 72 percent of transit funding compared to Chicago.

In terms of revenue going out in 2014, the CTA will get $661 million in operating funds from the RTA, Metra receives $365.4 million, and Pace $151.6 million. When you cut up that pie, it's 56 percent CTA, 31 percent Metra and 13 percent Pace.

The Noel conference occurred two weeks after the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace finally resolved a battle royale over splitting up about $180 million in discretionary funds. The CTA wanted and received 98 percent of the pie, something it's traditionally gotten. (Pace gets 2 percent.) Metra argued it deserved a piece of the action, given that sales tax revenues are suddenly surging after years of stagnation.

The feuding should climax in 2014 when a transit task force commissioned by Gov. Pat Quinn will recommend reforms to the General Assembly.

"The RTA Act is going to be opened up," Cronin said. "And I'm going to demand the suburbs be fairly represented."

Meanwhile, transportation sages at the Metropolitan Planning Council say the focus should be how little -- not how much.

Compared to 17 similar metropolitan areas in the U.S., Canada and Europe, we're cheapskates, the MPC found. The Chicago region spends around $250 a year per person compared to $600 in Boston, $800 in Washington, D.C., or about $1,100 in New York.

"We can continue to fight over the scraps, or we can rally together to say transit is valuable to the region and we as a region need to take a serious look at how we support transit," MPC Vice President Peter Skosey said.

So what's an equitable way to pay for transit? How does our transit system compare to other cities? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com)

One more thing

How much sales tax aimed at transit is generated by the city and the counties? In 2012, $1.34 billion was received regionwide, according to the RTA.

Of that pot, $369.4 million came from Chicago. $666.3 million from suburban Cook County, $115.7 million from DuPage, $73.1 million from Lake, $53.4 million from Will, $39.8 million from Kane and $23.8 million from McHenry.

(And just to get really wonky, those amounts also include a transfer from the state's general fund called the Public Transportation Fund that's based on a percentage of the sales tax.)

Your voice

American Airlines pilot Dwight Bouck was unimpressed by the new runway rollout at O'Hare last week and "political rhetoric" about how it will reduce delays.

He's concerned about the "amoebalike, cancerous transfer of flying from big jets to the smaller regional jets. Two-thirds of the jets at O'Hare today versus 10 years ago are now regional jets!" Bouck wrote.

"This alone has created more delays at O'Hare due to the increase of regional jet flying! Simply put, bring in 300 passengers from Atlanta on two big jets or five regional jets? Nothing is said about this transfer from big to small jets and the effects on delays at O'Hare. What happened? Why can't the politicians lay claim to O'Hare being the busiest airport in the world? Look no further than the tarmac and terminal occupancy of the regional jets. It's a shame."

Upcoming

The Illinois tollway is taking its budget show on the road to the Hinsdale Oasis. Number-crunchers can learn all about the 2014 fiscal plan during a public hearing from 3 to 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at the oasis. Another hearing starts at 6 p.m. Nov. 12 at tollway headquarters, 2700 Ogden Ave., Downers Grove.

And since we're talking tollway, you have until Nov. 1 to make a high school art student famous by voting in the annual tollway map cover contest. To check out the entries and vote, go to www.illinoistollway.com/homepage.

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