Saturday, February 3, 2007

How About A Transit Funding Referendum?

The RTA was created in 1974 when the voters in the six-county region narrowly approved the RTA. (See section 1.05 of the RTA Act and RTA history.) Is another referendum, this time on the issue of regional transit funding, something the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents such as the CTA, Metra and Pace should consider?

It seems likely that this spring the General Assembly will pass some sort of State capital funding bill and that the transit agencies will get their share of this money. Reopening the capital funding spigot will relieve some pressure facing the transit agencies on the capital side.

The tougher sell for the MBC proponents is their request for a new $225 million operating subsidy for 2007, which comes on top of the State's substantial existing financial support for the transit agencies. If the legislators read the RTA's 2007 budget book, they will also see that this new operating subsidy (including paratransit) is projected to grow to $430 million by 2009, a 91% increase in just three years. (Budget Book, pg. 5 of 50)

The General Assembly may well balk at this kind of "blank check" new subsidy. Presumably, it will be tough to drum up much support among downstate legislators for shifting this kind of new State money to Chicago area public transit. Transit proponents are competing with supporters of increased school funding and universal health care for scarce public dollars. Are taxpayers and their representatives likely to rank public transit--which in the end will provide limited congestion relief and modest environmental benefits--over education and healthcare.

Raising the RTA's sales tax in the five collar counties is likely to be a political tough sell. The collar counties already contribute 16% of the RTA's sales tax revenue and that percentage is growing as the collar counties continue to attract new residents and jobs. Suburban legislators will argue why should the collar counties increase that level of financial contribution to the RTA system when the collar counties generate less than 8% of the transit trips in the region. (See here at page 13 of 18.) (Note, however, that the same data shows that collar county riders consume 25% of the vehicle miles produced by the regional transit system.)

Might a politically palatable--even astute--approach be to put any regional tax increase or other RTA revenue enhancement technique on the ballot in the six counties? Who better to decide if the congestion relief and environmental benefits of public transit are worth the price quoted by the MBC proponents than the voters who use our regional transportation system every day.

The MBC proponents might consider a referendum a death sentence for their initiative to increase funding for public transit. They should reconsider. The Center for Transportation Excellence has tracked the fate of the many transit funding referenda from around the county. As this report and supplement show, transit funding referenda have a passage rate of approximately 70 percent. The defeats tend to come in those areas when a super-majority vote is required for passage.

This spring the MBC proponents may well fail to obtain sufficient State support for their request for a sharp increase in operating funding for public transit. Rather than walk away from Springfield empty-handed or with insufficient new State operating funding to stave off major service cuts or fare increases, the MBC proponents should consider making the following proposal: If the General Assembly provides sufficient operating funding through the end of 2007 in November 2007 there will be a referendum on the ballot in the six-county region asking for voter approval of a package of tax increases and revenue enhancements that will make up the difference between any additional operating funding the State is willing to supply and what is necessary to maintain, if not grow, the public transit system in the region. (A referendum at the time of the 2008 Illinois primary might be an even more favorable time for such a referendum, but who knows if the State will be willing to wait that long.)

The legislation could be crafted in the form of a sort of challenge grant. The State might pledge to provide a higher level of operating and capital funding if and only if the region approves a referendum that results in the region raising significantly more revenue for public transit. If the referendum is not approved, then State support would continue, but at a significantly lower level and our public transit system would begin shrinking and/or fares would increase sharply.

Certainly, it is not unreasonable for the State to insist that the voters and taxpayers in the six-county region show their support for public transit before the State substantially increases its financial commitment to public transit. The MBC's public hearings late last year were sparsely attended, suggesting that the general public may be indifferent to the prospect of a slimmed down public transit system. Might this referendum process energize the RTA and the MBC proponents to connect with the public and make their case for public transit in the region in a compelling manner.

Unless the RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents get too greedy and seek an unrealistically high bundle of new taxes and fees, the prospects for passage of this referendum would be good. First, the requirement of a simple majority to pass the referendum would set the bar lower for the proponents and suggest that a 70% chance of passage is very realistic. Second, the challenge grant approach would be a powerful tool to help persuade voters in the region to support the transit funding referendum to ensure that the region will not "leave on the table" State transit funding.

Maybe it is time to hear directly from the people on transit funding.

No comments: