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updated: 8/20/2014 8:02 PM

Metra could get extra RTA money for improvements

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  • Kirk Dillard

       Kirk Dillard
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New budget proposals from the Regional Transportation Authority break from tradition by distributing a 2 percent share of much sought-after funds to Metra.

Previously the lion's share of what's been called "discretionary funds" has gone to the Chicago Transit Authority with the remainder going to Pace.

Traditionally Metra hasn't received any of the spoils from the discretionary funding, but officials said Wednesday they're recommending the railroad agency use its share for capital improvements in light of weather-related service meltdowns in January.

At stake is about $200 million. In 2015, the RTA is proposing to give 96 percent of that to the CTA, with 2 percent going to Metra and another 2 percent to Pace. Those amounts require final approval from the RTA board and are being discussed with the three agencies.

Although the RTA is required to distribute most of the taxes it receives from the state by a strict formula, a percentage is left to the agency to divvy up. The amount is comparatively small compared to the entire pie, which is projected to total $1.43 billion for operating expenses in 2015, but the issue divided RTA directors from Chicago and the suburbs in 2013 and 2012.

Dissension in 2013 over the revenue pie pushed all four agencies to the brink of flouting a state-mandated deadline to set their budgets before consensus was reached.

So far, "there's been lots of healthy discussions," RTA Chief Financial Officer Bea Reyna-Hickey said Wednesday.

"We're optimistic that an agreement will be reached soon because our respective finance teams began their discussions a bit earlier this year and there's a renewed commitment to finding an agreement that is fair to each agency's needs," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.

CTA official Brian Steele said it would be premature to comment as the funding proposals were preliminary and still being analyzed by CTA administrators.

"While it is encouraging that the preliminary RTA proposal includes discretionary money for Metra, we are very early in the process of meeting with the RTA and our sister agencies to reach agreement on a final budget," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Since the 2013 and 2012 feuds, the RTA has undergone a change with a new executive director and chairman -- former Sen. Kirk Dillard, who presided over his first meeting Wednesday.

"It is just vital to have a stable, good mass transit system, said Dillard, who lives in Hinsdale.

Next year, administrators predict a 4 percent increase in the sales tax, which helps fund transit along with a Chicago only real estate transfer tax. Overall, out of $1.43 billion, the RTA has budgeted $739.8 million for the CTA, $381 million for Metra, $155.8 million for Pace and $158.2 million for paratransit, the service for riders with disabilities.

The RTA also is also contemplating borrowing $100 million to provide capital revenues for equipment and infrastructure.

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