City-suburbs transit turf spat resolved for now
A transit impasse that pitted the suburbs against the city appears resolved for now.
Regional Transportation Authority leaders approved a compromise funding plan for the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra on Wednesday at a special meeting.
That allows the three agencies to finalize their budgets in order for the RTA to approve them in time for a Dec. 31 deadline. A turf war over funding had delayed the process, setting the stage for a potential transit "Armageddon," RTA Chairman John S. Gates Jr. had warned.
Although a compromise was reached, some feared the acrimony had opened a Pandora's box and more power struggles will emerge in the future between Chicago and the CTA on one side and the suburbs with Metra and Pace on the other.
"It's a rather dangerous path to go down," RTA Director Donald Totten of Elgin said.
RTA officials have not ruled out the possibility of fare increases and service cuts in 2013 -- something the transit agencies will weigh as they finalize their budgets.
RTA directors also agreed to hire consultants to study the funding issue going forward and recommend an equitable way of dividing the money.
Asked why a study was necessary, Gates said, "what this will do is set up an objective, factual basis to have this debate in the spring and early summer rather than up against a budget deadline."
The results of the study are "probably going to be controversial, but at least we'll have an expert opinion," RTA Director Jan Carlson of Elburn noted.
The funding debate centered on $184.8 million in "discretionary" funds. Most of the money the agencies get is determined by a state formula giving the CTA 56 percent, Metra 32 percent and Pace 12 percent of revenues. But the RTA can independently dole out what's known as discretionary revenues, although previously the CTA has received up to 99 percent.
For 2013, the RTA staff recommended the CTA get 95 percent of the $184.8 million, or $175.8 million. Pace and Metra, the suburban bus and commuter train services, would each get $4.5 million in 2013, according to the staff plan.
CTA leaders argued the agency has a troublesome budget shortfall and a growing ridership so it needed 99 percent of the discretionary money.
Wednesday, RTA board directors ended up giving the CTA 98 percent or $181 million while Pace ended up with 2 percent or $3.7 million of the $184 million.
However, the agency also had $22 million to hand out from a 2011 sales tax surplus and proceeds from a lawsuit. Of that, Metra will get $7 million and the CTA will receive $15 million -- both for capital projects.
"It's their compromise," Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross said, adding his agency is still short $800,000.
Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford said via email that the agency supported the compromise plan and considered the funding study an important component. "A much healthier discussion about sources and uses of sales tax and PTF (public transportation fund) will be able to occur next year once the study is completed," Clifford said.
Totten noted that back in the 1970s, the CTA was forced to appeal to Illinois lawmakers for funding and that's one reason the RTA was created. At the time, "it was very controversial but it's worked well over the years," he said. Now, "it almost seems like the city/suburban fight was renewed ... I don't know if it's going to fester at this point."