Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Metra Governance: The Decided Suburban Tilt

As noted previously, if the General Assembly follows the requirements of the RTA Act and reapportions RTA board members to account for the 2000 census, then the board members appointed by the Mayor of Chicago plus the CTA Chairman no longer will have veto power over important decisions of the RTA board. Control will shift to board members from suburban Cook County and the collar counties.

Control of the Metra board is already securely in the hands of suburban Cook County and the collar counties thanks to an extraordinary provision in the RTA Act. Section 3B.02 of the RTA Act (70 ILCS 3615/3B.02) apportions the seven Metra board members as follows:

-- Mayor of Chicago appoints one board member
-- Suburban members of the Cook County Board appoint three directors
-- The Chairman of the DuPage County Board appoints one director
-- The Chairman of the Boards of Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will Counties jointly appoint two directors.

As with the RTA Board, every decade board members are to be reapportioned, but in Metra's case the allocation formula is not based on population:

Appointments to the Commuter Rail Board [i.e., Metra] shall be apportioned so as to represent the City of Chicago, that part of Cook County outside of the City of Chicago, and DuPage County and that part of the metropolitan region other than Cook and DuPage Counties based on morning boardings of the services provided by the Commuter Rail Division as certified to the Board of the Authority by the Commuter Rail Board, provided however that the Mayor of the City of Chicago shall appoint no fewer than 1 member of the Commuter Rail Board.

Note that the board members are allocated based on "morning boardings." Given Metra's primary function as a feeder of commuters from the suburbs to Chicago, the "morning boardings" formula is guaranteed to ensure that suburban representatives will dominate Metra's board. This decided suburban tilt through a formula surely intended to have just such a result seems contrary to the principle of regionalism that presumably animates the RTA Act.

The "morning boardings" allocation formula for Metra board seats creates a pernicious incentive for Metra to limit morning boardings within the City of Chicago in order to contain the City's influence over the Metra board. Whether this incentive has had any influence on Metra's investment decisions with respect to stations and service levels within the City of Chicago is something for which I'm sure opinions will vary.

The key question is whether it makes sense to so privilege morning boarding jurisdictions over afternoon boarding jurisdictions for purposes of allocating Metra board seats? Doesn't Chicago have a substantial interest in ensuring that Metra provides top-notch service to the Loop and the rest of the City and that these folks are able to travel from the City safely and efficiently? Why is this interest so devalued relative to the interest of the suburban communities in sending their citizens to Chicago via the train?

The answer by Metra's defenders is that why should the City of Chicago have any representatives on the Metra board when none of the RTA sale tax revenue collected in the City of Chicago goes to support Metra. This argument has some merit and, to the extent it does have merit, presumably it should be applied to the RTA board as well. If RTA board memberships were allocated on the basis of financial contribution to the system then the collar counties, which contribute only 16 percent of the RTA sales tax revenue, would be entitled to only two RTA board seats. Two seats is one less than the collar counties have today and two less than the collar counties appear to be entitled once the results of the 2000 census are taken into account. (See here and here)

Would it not make better sense to allocate Metra board seats based on total boardings by jurisdiction? That way the interests of communities as both senders and recipients of Metra passengers would be fully reflected in the composition of Metra' board. At the same time, might it also make sense for all jurisdictions that benefit from Metra service, including the City of Chicago, to provide some of the public subsidies for that service. Needless to say, the RTA service board funding formula is an issue that will occupy at least several future posts.

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