Taxes? Tolls? 'Transit is the Answer' plan brings bevy of questions

By Marni Pyke

Imagine being able to jump from Metra to the CTA or Pace seamlessly. Imagine audible announcements instead of "ruhmmhmmm ... delays ..." And imagine "real-time" updates on your ride that are delivered in real time.

It can happen, according to "Transit is the Answer," a new strategic plan from the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the three agencies.

But first the region needs to solve a more than $700 million "fiscal cliff" looming in 2025, RTA leaders say. And totally rethink how to fund transit. And maybe increase the sales tax or tolls to pay for it, which could lead to fiscal apoplexy cases.

"We're giving you lots of notice ... but we're going to have a gap of $730 million in two years," RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard said in a recent speech to the City Club.

Ridership tanked when COVID-19 hit, and it remains below 2019 levels. The federal government provided billions in aid to public transit, but the stimulus is dwindling, causing a crisis in agencies from New York to Chicago to San Francisco.

"Our transit funding system is not sustainable," Dillard said. "It is too dependent on fares. We have a requirement that 50% of our operating budget in northeastern Illinois has to come from fares. No one else in the United States has that type of requirement. Generally, they're 20%."

Where will the revenues come from? "Transit is the Answer" suggests options such as:

• Raising the RTA sales tax or extending it to services.

• Upping the motor fuel tax by 5 cents a gallon.

• Hiking vehicle registration fees by 10% in the region.

• Charging 5% more for tolls.

Increased funds would enable improvements that include safer trains and buses, zero-emission vehicles, accurate travel updates, expanded accessibility for riders with disabilities, more investment in low-income and minority communities, and an integrated fare system.

"We're almost there," Dillard said regarding integrated fares.

To convince naysayers, the RTA has a number of arguments. Among them: Transit creates $5.6 billion a year in economic activity in the city and suburbs. Also in 2019, Metra, Pace and the CTA contributed less than 2% of greenhouse gas in the region compared to passenger vehicles that emitted 59%. And, with no buses or trains, there would be about 1,500 more serious crashes a year.

What say you, Illinois tollway?

The agency "is always ready to work with other transit and transportation agencies to seek ways to better serve the transportation needs of the Chicago region," and it already partners with the RTA and Pace with programs such as letting buses use the I-90 shoulder lane in rush hour, spokesman Dan Rozek said.

But state law and the tollway's trust indenture say toll revenues can be used only to maintain and operate the system. Even if the law were changed, the trust indenture, which is a contract with bondholders, still prohibits those revenues from being shared, Rozek said.

Are any lawmakers lining up to spearhead the funding piece?

"Right now, we're focused on educating local, state, and federal officials about why the current funding structure is too reliant on fares and the financial challenges the system is facing and how service will change and improve with sustainable funding," RTA Principal for Intergovernmental Affairs Kyle Whitehead said Thursday.

Asked previously if he'd support higher taxes to avert a transit implosion, Gov. J.B. Pritzker thinks there's a continued role for the feds. "This has been happening all over the country," Pritzker said Dec. 14. "I do think the federal government needs to step up and look at how we can get past this."

Meanwhile, Environmental Law and Policy Center leaders agree with much of the RTA's plan.

But "where we're deeply troubled, though, is that it doesn't go further. It's just aspirational goals instead of a meaningful plan to get us there," said the policy center's deputy director, Kevin Brubaker.

Gridlock alert

Drivers should expect some delays at the I-88 and Tri-State tollways, with the closure of the ramp from westbound Roosevelt Road to southbound I-294.

Later in March, the ramp from westbound I-290 to northbound I-294 also will close.

The work is part of the rebuild and widening of the Central Tri-State. Closures are scheduled through 2024.

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