Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Waiting For The Dough: Today's Public Transit Panel Discussion

The panel discussion this morning at the Union League Club featured Representative Julie Hamos, DuPage County Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, Crain's Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz and Steve Schlickman, the RTA's Executive Director.

In their opening remarks, both Representative Hamos and Greg Hinz described the current situation in Springfield as "surreal." By surreal, they meant that huge new spending and revenue proposals (e.g., universal health care, gross receipts tax) are emerging and yet regional transit problems do not yet have priority status.

Representative Hamos suggested that the current funding problems will be handled incrementally. The transit system's capital needs will be addressed in the State's capital program. Costs for paratransit and related van pool services are growing rapidly and should be dealt with on their own. Likewise, the CTA's pension system woes will be dealt with separately. These incremental measures will leave a much smaller and more manageable operating deficit figure for mainline transit service for the General Assembly to face.

Greg Hinz stressed that the regional transit system may miss out on a "once in a lifetime" opportunity in the General Assembly to secure increased funding and structural reforms. His view is the Mayor of Chicago is the key to pushing through a transit agenda. Hinz described the Mayor as "AWOL on transit issues," even speculating that the Mayor's perceived "lack of a visceral interest in transit" is due to his upbringing on the transit-poor southwest side of Chicago.

Chairman Schillerstrom stressed the importance of reforming the RTA so that it is an effective regional transit agency with the power, for example, to tell the service boards where to put routes. If the RTA is so reconstituted, and if the RTA recognizes the need for expanded transit service to the burgeoning population and job centers in the suburbs, then increased funding for regional public transit is possible.

Steve Schlickman in his remarks did not discount the need for reforming the RTA, but stressed that we cannot let debate over the particulars of the RTA's statutory duties and responsibilities obscure the fact that the service boards have major and immediate funding needs. His view is that RTA reform will do little to close that funding gap.

The questions from the crowd were pretty unimpressive, but did generate some interesting comments by the panelists:
  • Chairman Schillerstrom signaled that the suburban county chairman would support closing the gap between the 1 percent RTA sales tax in Cook County and the 0.25 percent sales tax in the collar counties if, and only if, that increase would lead to substantially more public transit service in the collar counties.
  • The RTA's Chairman, Jim Reilly, is personally involved in negotiations between the CTA and its unions concerning ways to help resolve the CTA's pension funding crisis and this has been his top priority since joining the RTA.
  • The Chicago Mayor's Office is resisting even Representative Hamos' modest package of RTA reforms. (She seemed none too happy to hear this.)
  • The issue of RTA governance is a very hot potato. Chairman Schillerstrom did state that he (and presumably at least some of his suburban colleagues) are comfortable with the current arrangement, where supermajority vote requirements for major RTA decisions require City/suburban consensus. Representative Hamos said that her RTA bill avoided the governance issue precisely to avoid stirring up political passions. Several people faulted the regional transit task force several years ago chaired by former congressman William Lipinski for focusing too much on the question of governance.
  • The panel refused to get drawn into the old city vs. suburbs dynamic despite an audience question to the effect that the suburbs feel like they are being taken advantage of under the current RTA governance system and funding structure. Greg Hinz reminded the questioner that the relatively low density in many suburban areas, which is a result of the land-use policies implemented by suburban governments, makes public transit service in the suburbs more difficult and more expensive to provide than transit service in more densely settled areas such as Chicago. Steve Schlickman stressed that all three service boards are facing operating deficits, not just the CTA. Chairman Schillerstrom emphasized that some suburban areas, especially his DuPage County, have increased population and employment density that make them far better suited to transit than they were 30 years ago, when most commuting was to jobs in downtown Chicago.
  • Steve Schlickman sharply criticized his predecessors at the RTA for having failed to put together a strategic plan since the RTA took on its current form in 1983. He indicated that it was the RTA's failure to have a strategic plan in place that delayed the RTA's push more transit funding until this year.
  • Schlickman also pointed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City as a model. The MTA has seen a continuous series of 5-year multi-billion dollar capital plans that has rebuilt the transit system in that region. Schlickman contrasted that disciplined approach to capital investment with the Illinois approach, which he described as "a five-year plan followed by five years planning for the next five-year plan." (Interestingly, there is no RTA-like oversight agency overseeing New York's transit providers; rather, the service agencies are consolidated within the MTA. We'll explore the need to move beyond the RTA oversight model in an upcoming post.)
  • Greg Hinz suggested that the responsibility for capital planning should be vested in the RTA to avoid unseemly competition between the service boards for capital dollars. (This approach will be explored in an upcoming post as well.)
The pervasive theme running throughout the panel session was waiting. Waiting for the 600-700 page audit report by Auditor General William Holland, which will be released any day. Waiting for the Governor's proposed budget. Waiting for the Mayor of Chicago to make a strong pitch for transit--or not. Waiting for transit issues to capture the attention of the public and the legislative leaders. Waiting for the dough necessary to operate and maybe even expand the region's public transit system.

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