With the Regional Transportation Authority and the entire mass transit system of northern Illinois the subject of scrutiny, officials are letting it be known that change is needed.
“We have demands and needs that are not being filled,” DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin told more than 100 local government officials Friday at a public transit conference. “I want to make sure it’s fair.”
The conference included a preliminary report from the Governor’s Task Force for Northeast Illinois Transit.
Cronin spoke of the current system of distributing what are known as discretionary funds, revenue that became available after 2008 legislation that added an additional sales tax revenue stream to the system.
What rankles Cronin and many others in the collar counties is the split for the discretionary revenue, which averages 97 percent toward the Chicago Transit Authority, 3 percent for Pace and nothing for Metra.
The CTA provides service almost exclusively in the city of Chicago, Pace operates buses in the collar counties and Metra is the area’s main commuter railway, serving stations in Aurora, Naperville and many other communities in the area.
With 80 percent of total RTA ridership being on the CTA, but 70 percent of the sales tax dollars coming from suburban riders, some suburban officials feel a closer look at the entire system is long overdue.
“There certainly is some discrepancy between what we give and what we take,” John Zediker, DuPage County’s representative on the RTA Board of Directors, said.
But Zediker also pointed out that there was some level of CTA services being accessed by suburban riders, so the imbalance might not be quite as bad as it first appears.
The funding problems aren’t limited to disputes between the three entities under the RTA umbrella.
“We don’t have nearly enough money,” John Gates Jr., RTA Board chairman, said. Gates pointed out that the RTA racked up $500 million in red ink last year and had to make it up from the group’s capital funds.
Complicating matters is that the state of Illinois and the federal government are not likely to be in a position anytime soon to increase the level of funding for transit in the region.
With $31.1 billion in investment needed over the next 10 years to achieve a “state of good repair,” and $18.7 million in projects already past due, Gates said the Illinois General Assembly needs to lift the bond cap for the RTA and make it possible for $2.5 billion in bonds to be sold, which would let the RTA benefit from current low interest rates.
Still, the problem of a chronic funding shortfall persists, and a consensus seems to be emerging that the entire system needs to be restructured. But that will take a major overhaul of the current governing structure, which essentially has three separate agencies often competing for the same transportation dollars, some officials said.
Delcan, a consulting group, studied the system and put together several scenarios for policy-makers to consider. One of the options involved standing pat and maintaining the status quo, an option not likely to draw much support.
“The current system is flawed,” Keith Jasper of Delcan said.
The Delcan study concentrated on five cities whose mass transit systems bore some similarity to the Chicago area, including New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
The options preferred by Cronin were a competitive model, where the some funds could be allocated to entities seeking creative solutions and another where the bulk of funds would be allocated based on meeting certain performance criteria.
“These are not easy issues,” he said after listening to Delcan’s presentation. “There really is not an ideal model out there.”
While some of the options called for a weakened RTA administration, those favored by Cronin called for a strengthened RTA with the other services basically acting as departments of the RTA, similar to the New York system.
“You have to have strong oversight,” Cronin said.
Cronin said that he thought the General Assembly would take up the matter in the spring, and that he would be mindful that the CTA might be overly aggressive in fighting for revenue.
“I’ve got my guard up,” he said.