Thursday, February 22, 2007

Another Ho-Hum Editorial

The Sun-Times gave the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion initiative a very cautious endorsement on its editorial page.

The editorial summarizes the RTA's case for more funding. It observes that "no one expects lawmakers to simply hand over the money" and that there "must first be assurances that the agencies are spending the money wisely and efficiently."

Like other commentators, the Sun-Times is placing great stock in the upcoming report by Auditor General William Holland on waste and mismanagement at the RTA and the three service boards (CTA, Metra, Pace).

There is no guarantee, however, that even if Holland identifies such waste/mismanagement he will provide much in the way of solutions. For example, Holland may determine that the service boards could achieve major cost savings through outsourcing some of the work currently being done by unionized employees. Will Holland address how the service boards can get beyond any "no subcontracting" clauses in their labor agreements? Will any solutions he might present to address waste and mismanagement be cost-effective and politically palatable? What if his suggestions yield savings that are only a fraction of the uncovering (and growing) operating deficits?

Nor is there any indication that Holland will tackle some of the key transit funding and governance issues that face the General Assembly, such as the differential in the RTA tax rate between Cook County and the collar counties, the statutory formula for allocating operating funds, and the allocation of RTA board seats based on population rather than ridership, financial contribution levels or some other method. Nor does his charge appear to include policy considerations such as the kinds of powers that should be vested in the RTA.

In short, Holland's report is no substitute for the members of the General Assembly and the media conducting their own assessment of RTA and service board efficiency and preparing their own recommendations for improving the region's public transit system.

The Sun-Times editorial goes on to note that Julie Hamos, the head of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee, and the Metropolis 2020 group both believe that the RTA is "toothless" and that structural changes are necessary to give the RTA the "power to coordinate regional planning." The editorial does not say if the Sun-Times endorses such structural changes.

The editorial closes by observing that there are no good ways to raise revenue, that further delay in fixing transit funding problems is unsupportable, and that "if we want cleaner air, less congested roads and a thriving economy, the time to act is now, however painful it might be."

The Sun-Times editorial certainly is much more civil than the recent Northwest Herald editorial that described the CTA as a "money pit." It does, however, share with the Northwest Herald the hope that the upcoming Hollard audit will provide a host of large and easily implemented cost-saving measures and that "things must be fixed" before the General Assembly opens the money spigot. Maybe we have regional consensus on this approach.

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