Monday, April 9, 2007

The Federal Interest Is What, Exactly?

The Daily Herald reports the most surprising news that United States Congressman Mark Kirk (R) and Melissa Bean (D) have put together a "bipartisan panel to provide a suburban counterweight to Chicago influence on road and commuter train financial decisions."

According to the article "the Suburban Transportation Commission will be dedicated to keeping the current funding formula among Metra, the CTA and Pace, ensuring that tax and fee increases to fund the three first are approved by voters and preserving suburban parity in the makeup of the Regional Transportation Authority."

It is apparent from the article that the Commission will be focusing on protecting the current operating funding formula and the transit governance status quo in the RTA Act:

"We want to make sure decisions are focused on where half of all citizens in Illinois live, which is the suburbs. And especially where the economic growth is taking place,” said Kirk, a Highland Park Republican.

The suburban push is being made now because the CTA is seeking a bailout of its employee pension problem from state lawmakers. The CTA soon will start owing $200 million a year to shore up its pension fund. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley told reporters last week he’s concerned the issue isn’t on anyone’s radar screen in Springfield. And when the powerful Daley makes concerns public, often the ball starts to roll.

“It’s a hot topic,” Kirk said. “We want to make sure we do right by the CTA, but not at the expense of suburban commuters.”

A couple of years ago, then-Cook County Board President John Stroger led a push to get the makeup of the RTA board — which is currently evenly divided between city and suburban members — changed to benefit the city. One proposal would have allowed the governor — who currently is a Chicago Democrat — to appoint a powerful chief who then would have been able to change the funding formula. The RTA doles out money to the CTA, Metra and Pace according to the formula.

The involvement of two federal congressman in putting together this commission begs the question: What interest does the federal government have in how the State of Illinois and the various local governments in the region choose to raise and distribute operating funding to the service boards? Likewise, what exactly is the federal interest in how the State and the region organize the governance of the public transit system in Northeastern Illinois?

The federal government, after all, stopped providing operating funding for major transit agencies a decade ago. There are no, and to my knowledge never were any, federal requirements or even guidelines for how States and local governments divide up operating funding among various transit modes serving urban, suburban and exurban areas. Likewise, the federal government does not oversee how states and localities govern their transit systems. Indeed, except for certain selected instances (e.g., Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000)), Representative Kirk's party has professed a hand's off attitude for how states and local governments manage themselves.

Representatives Kirk and Bean may justify their intervention into the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion process because of the large federal capital investment in public transit systems like the CTA, Metra and Pace. It might make sense, for example, for them to examine why for many years Metra has been getting a far larger share of federal capital funds than the CTA relative to both ridership share and the condition of their infrastructure. They might look at whether the much higher per trip operating subsidies for Pace and Metra riders square with the federal civil rights laws.

While they are at it perhaps they can discuss why the federal government continues to require that public transit agencies provide paratransit service even though their buses and trains are largely handicapped accessible without providing these agencies with any federal operating funding support for these services. In this region alone, paratransit operating costs will soon top $100 million a year.

But somehow I don't think these questions will be at the top of the Kirk/Bean Commission's agenda. Rather, the Commission's goal appears to be to preserve the local status quo, which means that suburban Cook County will continue to subsidize transit service in the collar counties and the City of Chicago. It means that capital investment decisions will be tilted heavily in favor of suburban transit, even though the cost of operating suburban transit assets is much higher relative to Cook County transit assets because of lower population densities and ridership.

The Commission does not yet have a website, but it is getting to work quickly and has its first hearing at 10 a.m. tomorrow (4/10):

The group will hold its first meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Lake County Transportation Center in Libertyville. Democratic state Sen. Michael Bond of Grayslake and Republican state Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. of Mundelein will be among those hearing testimony from RTA Chairman James Reilly, Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano and Pace Executive Director Thomas Ross.

It is interesting that despite Rep. Kirk's statement that "we want to make sure we do right by the CTA," no one from the CTA will be giving testimony at this meeting even though Metra and Pace will be appearing and giving testimony. I wonder if the CTA was even invited. If not, it was shameful for Jim Reilly, the head of the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion effort, to put professed bipartisanship aside and lend credence to this bit of political grandstanding by the two Representatives. If the CTA was invited and chose not to attend, then it missed a golden opportunity to lay out the case for why its many woes are in part--and I stress in part--due to structural problems in the way operating and capital funds are distributed among the three service boards. Does anyone know the facts here?

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