Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The RTA Act (Capital Investment): What Were They Thinking?

When the RTA Act was last revamped in 1983 the federal government was getting into the business of providing both capital and operating subsidies to public transit agencies. Operating subsidies dried up in the 1990s, but the federal government has continued to provide substantial capital funds for public transit. This funding includes "formula" funds distributed according to a statutory formula and "New Starts" funding for new transit projects. New Starts funding is supposed to be allocated based on a comparative assessment of project merits, but in the last federal transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) much of the new starts money is earmarked for specific projects.

It is very difficult to decide how to parcel capital dollars among transit projects and between service boards. The RTA Act clearly contemplates that the RTA will decide which transit projects in the region would be funded. Section 4.02 of the RTA Act provides in relevant part:

The Authority shall be the primary public body in the metropolitan region with authority to apply for and receive any grants, loans or other funds relating to public transportation programs from the State of Illinois or any department or agency thereof, or from the federal government or any department or agency thereof.

Section 4.02(b) goes on to bar the service boards or any other unit of local government from applying for federal (or state) capital funds unless the RTA has put the project in the RTA's Five-Year Program. The Five-Year Program is the RTA's detailed listing of future capital projects. (See section 2.01(b) of the RTA Act.)

The RTA has been derelict in its duty to set and enforce capital investment priorities. Today the RTA is far from the "primary body" seeking capital funds for transit. Instead, each of the service boards apply for state and federal dollars on their own. As we might expect, the service boards aggressively push their own capital investment agendas and in doing so they come into conflict, often to the dismay of the federal legislators who are supposed to be pushing the Illinois agenda in Congress. No one--not the region's metropolitan planning agency (CATS) and not the RTA--has stepped up and made critical judgments about which projects will advance the RTA's goal of developing a "comprehensive and coordinated" regional public transit system. (RTA Act, section 1.02(ii))

The RTA's failure to exercise its power over capital investment decisions has several deleterious effects. First, the RTA's fails to exert discipline over capital investment decisions means that the service boards can avoid making the hard decisions necessary to provide the public with a coordinated public transit system. Had the RTA exercised its capital investment powers, for example, the RTA long ago could have insisted that before it embarked on various line extensions Metra implement some sort of fare card reader system so that riders can transfer seamlessly among the three transit systems.

Second, there is lots of wasted effort because the RTA and the three service boards each have extensive staff devoted to planning for, applying for and then administering federal and state grants.

Third, the competition for federal money by the three service boards undercuts the principle of regionalism. Major projects such as the "CTA's" Circle Line project and "Metra's" STAR Line project are identified with particular service boards, which in turn are identified with particular regions. This kind of factionalism makes it all the more difficult for the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents jigger with the RTA's sale tax rates and the distribution of that money. That is because the RTA sales tax and the distribution of that revenue to the service boards differ by Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties. Wouldn't it be much more consistent with the principles of regionalism to have "RTA" projects administered by the service boards?

Finally, the RTA's failure to screen capital investment projects based on some reasonable criteria mean that the region may not be making best us of federal and state capital dollars. In other words, what may look like a good investment to a single service board may not look like an especially good investment from a regional perspective.

The RTA's failure to assert its primacy in making capital investment decisions begs the question we posed many posts ago: Is the RTA just powerful enough to be irritating but not powerful enough to do much good?

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