Sunday, March 4, 2007

More on Representative Hamos' RTA Bill

Representative Julie Hamos' bill on the RTA is HB 1841. She has issued a Fact Sheet on the bill.

The Fact Sheet states that the goal of the bill is to "increase transit ridership through better service, more transfers and improved coordination." This goal purportedly will be "accomplished by giving RTA a central role in taking a 'bird's eye view' of the region, with new responsibilities to focus on transit service issues that have regional and systemwide implications."

The Fact Sheet identifies the four key components of the bill as follows:

--Requiring the RTA to develop annual goals, objectives and performance standards for the transit agencies
--Giving the RTA new oversight powers "through budget, financial, management and ridership data, audit, fare policy change, and resolution of disputes over duplication of services
--Giving the RTA the responsibility to implement short-term enhancement projects "to provide better, faster and more interconnected service on existing lines"
--Creating a "Regional Transit Innovations Fund" for the RTA to "fund its regional goals and innovations for enhanced services"

A previous post questioned whether this bill, which mostly repackages powers that the RTA has already, will go far enough to achieve the ambitious goals set by Representative Hamos.

For example, say the RTA decides that it makes sense to have a single unified real time bus location information system available to all bus customers in the region with access to the Internet. It decides to fund this "enhancement" through the Regional Transit Innovations Fund. If Pace and/or the CTA, each of which is developing their own bus location information system (Pace, CTA), object to the RTA's proposed system then what does the RTA do?

If the RTA sent its contractors to CTA and Pace bus garages to install new equipment on the buses they could be thrown out as trespassers. The RTA could cut off funding for a recalcitrant service board by rejecting their operating budget or capital plan, but the RTA board has shown no appetite for wielding this big stick in almost 25 years. Representative Hamos' bill is unlikely to persuade the RTA board to act any differently in the years ahead.

One suspects that even after Representative Hamos' bill is enacted the service board response to RTA initiatives that the service board opposed would echo Joseph Stalin dismissive view of the Pope--"how many divisions does he have?"

Maybe the problem is with the oversight model itself. Having a separate and relatively small agency oversee three bumptious transit agencies year after year invites the kind of spats and lack of productive cooperation that we have seen over the past 25 years. Maybe what is needed is a successor agency to the RTA that absorbs the three service boards and reconstitutes them into its operating divisions.

If that successor agency has clear legislative direction via its enabling act and is answerable to the Governor and the General Assembly via methods like legislative oversight committees, annual appropriation hearings and regular audits by the Auditor General, the prospects for an improved public transit system are greater than continuing with the failed oversight model that Representative Hamos' bill will not salvage.

(This shift to an operating division model does not preclude the use of an emergency oversight agency of limited duration to facilitate the transition.)

We'll explore moving beyond the perpetual oversight model in an upcoming post.

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