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posted: 10/31/2013 5:00 AM

Suburban transit needs bigger share

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Who gets and who gives?

In the world of publicly funded goods and services, the two often don't match up.

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Childless homeowners pay taxes so public schools can educate other peoples' kids. Illinois taxpayers pay more to the federal government than we get back from Washington, the opposite of states like New Mexico and Mississippi.

Nor should the numbers match up evenly. Government services are intended to benefit the public, not just those who can pay for them.

So what should we make of DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin's argument that "tax dollars for transit should directly benefit those who pay them?"

Cronin made the comments last week at a transit conference in Oak Brook, repeating a common refrain in the city-vs-suburbs fight over divvying up sales tax dollars for public transportation in the metropolitan area.

But you don't have to entirely buy that refrain to agree with Cronin's larger point that the suburbs are being shortchanged. The distribution of transit funds across the region is so lopsided, and the unmet transit needs in the suburbs so large, that something needs to be done differently.

As perhaps the most egregious example, one pot of money -- a $180 million discretionary fund -- recently was allocated with 98 percent going to the Chicago Transit Authority, which operates the L lines and buses in Chicago and some nearby suburbs. And not just this year. The Regional Transportation Authority promised CTA that percentage, its traditional cut, through 2016.

In case you're curious, 27 percent of 2012 sales tax money for Chicago-area transit came from Chicago, 50 percent came from suburban Cook County, 8.6 percent came from DuPage County, 5 percent came from Lake County, 4 percent came from Will County, 3 percent came from Kane County, and not quite 2 percent came from McHenry County. Of all operating funds provided by the RTA, CTA got 56 percent ($661 million) last year, Metra commuter rail got 31 percent ($365.4 million) and Pace suburban bus got 13 percent ($151.6 million.)

A consultant's report earlier this month concluded the RTA needs an overhaul, and a task force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn is considering just that. At a time when most jobs are not in downtown Chicago and when the shortage of suburb-to-suburb transit options is a growing problem, the governor's task force should make a priority of reforming how money is allocated. It's time to move away from the traditional Chicago-centric model and instead base funding on where the money is needed.

We like one idea floated by RTA consultant Delcan Corp. That proposal would reserve a portion of funds for competitive grants to the transit agencies. Awarding some of the funds for specific initiatives with well-defined goals and measured results sounds like one big improvement.

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