Saturday, November 25, 2006

The RTA's Responsibility for Capital Funding Disparities

The recent Situation Analysis Interim Report ("Report") of the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion initiative outlines the capital shortfall facing the public transit service boards. What the Report fails to address is how the RTA's distribution of capital funds among the service boards over the years has compounded the crisis for the CTA.

The RTA Act includes a complicated distributional formula for sending RTA sales tax revenue to the service boards in the form of operating subsidies. 70 ILCS 3615/4.01(d). There is no such statutorily mandated formula for the RTA's distribution of capital funds. Yet, for years the RTA has distributed federal formula capital funds--the bulk of the capital funds for the service boards--according to a fixed formula. The CTA gets 58%, Metra 34% and Pace 8%. (The CTA got an even smaller share of Illinois FIRST capital funds.)

The RTA's 2007 Budget Book (page 18 of 43) states that the 58%/34%/8% split is based on a "historical distribution." The RTA makes no pretense that it is distributing capital funds to the service boards based on a professional assessment of the capital needs of the service boards or according to a performance-based metric such as obtaining the most transit ridership per dollar of capital investment.

While the basis for the "historical distribution" is unclear, we do know the CTA is shortchanged under the RTA's capital funding formula. For years, the CTA's share of capital investment has run well behind its share of transit customers in the region. The 2006 ridership shares are as follows:

CTA: 80%
Metra: 14%
Pace: 6%

Yet, the RTA's 2007 Budget Book sets the preliminary capital marks for the service boards for the 2007-2011 period as follows:

CTA: 57%
Metra: 36%
Pace: 7%

Not surprisingly, as a result of years of capital investment at levels far less than its ridership share, the CTA's capital stock is in the worse shape. The Report (pgs. 19-22) makes this evident. CTA rail cars have a useful life of 25 years: 78% of its fleet is now 20 years or older. CTA buses have a useful life of 12 years: 55% of its bus fleet is 11 years or older. The average CTA bus garage is 46 years old. The average for Pace is 18 years. In contrast, the Report makes no mention of Metra facing any chronically obsolete railcars or facilities. We can only infer that after many years in which the RTA gave Metra a share of capital funds more than double Metra's ridership share, Metra's capital stock is in much better condition than the CTA's capital stock.

The effects of the RTA's maldistribution of capital funds to the service boards is graphically illustrated by two recent publications. The November 2006 edition of Metra's "On the Bi-Level" has an article on Metra's 2007 budget. The article illustrates the importance of capital investment by citing to Metra's early days in the 1980s, when Metra's "track and equipment was in such poor shape trains had to run slower than 25 mph on about 15 percent of the Metra system."

The second article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on November 15, 2006. In that article John Hilkevitch reported that slow zones have more than doubled on the CTA rail system since July 2005. Almost half of the Howard branch of the Red Line is a slow zone. With limited capital funds, the CTA cannot afford more work crews to reduce the number of slow zones. In other words, Metra's bad old days, in which 15 percent of its system was a slow zone, describes the CTA of today, a system riddled with slow zones.

The responsibility for the disparity in capital funding between Metra and the CTA clearly lies with the RTA. It is unfortunate that despite new leadership, the RTA appears committed to perpetrating the current formula, which will continued to shortchange the CTA of capital funds. Even those who might otherwise be inclined to support the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion package need to consider whether the RTA's allocation of capital funds according to the "historical distribution" formula makes good sense and leads to the best use of public dollars.

Might it not make better sense to distribute capital funds using professional engineering needs assessments tied to a performance metric such as ridership to be served/geneated per dollar of investment? Why shouldn't capital funds be spent on projects that will do the most good for the most riders rather than distributed unequally using an unwritten formula hammered out years ago in a very different political environment.

1 comment:

John said...

Is ridership (presumably unlinked trips) the best performance metric? Why not passenger-miles?