Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Let My Counties Go: Kane and McHenry Counties Should Leave the RTA

The House Committee on Mass Transit's Report on Transit Funding Formula (available here) concluded that suburban Cook County residents are subsidizing transit service in both Chicago and the collar counties.

The collar counties, however, feel that they are being shortchanged. Kane County officials beat up on the RTA's Steve Schlickman and other Moving Beyond Congestion representatives a few months ago. A recent story in the Northwest Herald reports that the folks in McHenry County feel that they are being shortchanged as well.

As the Northwest Herald article reports, these suburbanites are upset that the RTA gives almost all of its discretionary operating dollars to prop up the CTA. The RTA draws these discretionary funds from the 15% it takes off the top of the RTA sales tax receipts (and the 25% State match of these receipts). The article quotes Aaron Shepley, Pace board member and Crystal Lake mayor, that “I think any tax increase that is levied upon the RTA area will be used to bail out the CTA. Period. End of story.” Shepley goes on to say that “I’ve got news for you – we’ve been bailing them out for years.”

While these authorities downplay the fact that the collar county RTA sales tax rate is only one-quarter the tax rate in Cook County, they are quick to point up perceived deficiencies in the level of transit service in the far flung suburbs. At least Mr. Shepley recognizes that the suburban layout "is not friendly to traditional bus routes."

Rep. Mike Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican who sits on the House Mass Transit Committee, suggests that McHenry County be allowed to keep its financial contribution to Pace and run its own bus system. Indeed, as this article reports, some suburban municipalities are subsidizing trips by taxi for their residents. There may actually be a demand for publicly funded transit service in relatively low density suburban areas that Pace and Metra may not be suited to provide.

At the same time the folks from McHenry and Kane Counties are fulminating, the RTA's recent Final Report from its Moving Beyond Congestion effort recommends that more than half of the capital investment for transit in the region over the next five years should go to Metra and Pace. Much of this investment will go to expand the transit system in outlying counties like McHenry and Kane.

Put these elements together--strong sentiment against the RTA in much of the collar county area and large capital requirements necessary to expand the transit infrastructure in this area--and maybe you get the elements of a "less is more" solution.

Consider this package. Limit the RTA to counties with more than 500,000 in population. This would leave Cook, DuPage, Will and Lake counties in the RTA. Let Kane and McHenry counties leave the RTA. The RTA would thus lose the two least densely populated counties (with the highest per capita anti-RTA whining levels) in the region.

Allowing Kane and McHenry counties to secede from the RTA would result in a loss of about $25 million in RTA sales tax revenue. This revenue loss could be more than made up by doubling the sales tax rate in Lake, DuPage and Will counties to 0.5%, still only half the tax rate in Cook County.

Lake, DuPage and Will Counties have the most potential to support viable public transit of the five collar counties. Lake County has a strong mix of residential development and employment and well-developed commuting links to Chicago and soon, perhaps, with Milwaukee. DuPage County has almost one million people. It has an employment and shopping belt along I-88 that cries out for a direct connection with Chicago. Will County is a net exporter of people to jobs in these areas, so the potential is there for high-speed bus service and the like in the I-355 and I-294 corridors.

What about transit service in Kane and McHenry counties? They would be empowered to continue to collect the RTA sale tax, but this time for their own use. They would be allowed to use this money to purchase transit service at cost from Metra and Pace and/or fund their own transit services.

If the protestations of these Kane County and McHenry County public officials to the effect that their counties are being shortchanged by the RTA are true, then these monies should be sufficient for the counties to support improved transit service in their counties. They also would have the flexibility to utilize private sector resources (e.g., subsidized taxis and jitneys) and service methods (e.g., dial-a-ride) that the RTA and its service providers cannot or will not provide.

Getting these two counties and the negative vibe created by their political supporters out of the RTA system would help the RTA "sell" its Moving Beyond Congestion package to the General Assembly. For all we know, allowing them to leave the RTA system as part of this package might turn these counties in avid supporters of the package. Keeping these counties in their malcontents in the RTA will put almost irresistible pressure on the RTA to attempt to buy their support by allocating far more capital investment and operating subsidies to these areas than prudent transit practices would indicate. (Indeed, it appears that the RTA already has succumbed to that pressure: here and here.)

Getting the two counties in the region least suited to public transit out the RTA system would be a boost to Metra and Pace and the RTA itself. The capital investments in McHenry and Kane are likely to have much lower return on investment than investments in areas in the counties with greater density and a stronger existing public transit infrastructure. Thus, the RTA could scale back its proposed capital plan--making it more palatable to the General Assembly--if those counties no longer were the RTA's responsibility.

Likewise, transit service in Kane and McHenry counties likely has a lower farebox recovery ratio than service elsewhere in the region. Excising these counties from the RTA will help Metra and Pace meet the farebox recovery ratios assigned to them by the RTA to meet the systemwide 50 percent farebox recovery ratio mandated by the RTA Act.

Some might object that decreasing the size of the RTA defeats the purpose of regionalism. However, Kane and McHenry would stay within the purview of CMAP and be subject to the region's metropolitan planning organization. The existing provisions in the RTA Act (section 3.06) that allow outlying areas to join the RTA would remain. The two counties could petition to get back into the RTA family if one or both of them find that going it alone on transit is not a piece of cake.

The deciding question should whether the current RTA geographical structure leads to the best and most cost effective transit service in the region. If these two collar counties say no and if the RTA and the service boards will benefit from not having to provide service to these relatively low-population areas, then it is a win-win proposition to scale back the RTA to the four counties in the region most suited to public transit.

Maybe the locals in McHenry and Kane Counties will beat a hasty retreat if presented with this opportunity to leave the RTA. Then we will know that they have been blowing smoke all along about being treated unfairly by the RTA. But maybe their rugged spirit of independence (and their spirit of innovation) will prompt them to leave the RTA system and strike off on their own.

So be it, and good riddance.

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