Monday, January 22, 2007

The RTA: What Were They Thinking?

This is the first several posts looking at the RTA and the RTA Act. As part of the Moving Beyond Congestion process, the public and the General Assembly need to closely examine the RTA Act, the charter for the RTA, and determine what changes need to be made in the RTA's powers, functions, and mission.

Article I of the RTA Act outlines the purposes of the RTA Act. The more things change the more they stay the same. The General Assembly's list of findings and purposes (section 1.02) cites the importance of public transit to Northeastern Illinois and the financial crisis facing the public transit service providers. The General Assembly's description of the importance of public transit could be lifted from the more fervent Moving Beyond Congestion propaganda:

Comprehensive and coordinated regional public transportation is essential to the public health, safety and welfare. It is essential to economic well‑being, maintenance of full employment, conservation of sources of energy and land for open space and reduction of traffic congestion and for providing and maintaining a healthful environment for the benefit of present and future generations in the metropolitan region. Public transportation improves the mobility of the public and improves access to jobs, commercial facilities, schools and cultural attractions. Public transportation decreases air pollution and other environmental hazards resulting from excessive use of automobiles and allows for more efficient land use and planning.

It is rather ironic that public transit advocates have been beating the "congestion" drum for decades now, as illustrated by this language, when by today's standards the 1970s and 1980s was the blissful era of relatively uncongested roads.

If the case for public transit hasn't changed much in 25 years, how about the purpose of the RTA? Section 1.02(c) sets out these purposes:

It is the purpose of this Act to provide for, aid and assist public transportation in the northeastern area of the State without impairing the overall quality of existing public transportation by providing for the creation of a single authority responsive to the people and elected officials of the area and with the power and competence to provide financial review of the providers of public transportation in the metropolitan region and facilitate public transportation provided by Service Boards which is attractive and economical to users, comprehensive, coordinated among its various elements, economical, safe, efficient and coordinated with area and State plans.

Note that the "single authority" is intended to be "responsive to the people and elected officials of the area" (emphasis added). Thus, the RTA Act writes the State of Illinois out of the governance equation, even though over time the State has supplied a large and growing share of financial support to the RTA and its three service boards, CTA, Metra and Pace.

The General Assembly limits the RTA's powers to providing "financial review of the providers of public transportation" and "facilitating" comprehensive and coordinated public transit provided by the service boards. Thus, the RTA does not have a role in operations other than as a "facilitator." One big issue is whether the General Assembly intended to hobble the RTA by so limiting its powers and, if so, whether doing so still makes sense.

What is also interesting about this list of findings and purposes is that nowhere is there a finding that justifies, or an identified purpose served, by chopping up the six counties over which the RTA has jurisdiction into three regions--City of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the five collar counties--for purposes of taxation, board representation and allocation of operating subsidies. That balkanization has fostered unhealthy rivalries between the regions and between the service boards. No wonder that we still do not have a universal fare card for the region.

In sum, is the RTA just powerful enough to be irritating but not powerful enough to do much good? Stay tuned.

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