Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Metra Bolting The Moving Beyond Congestion Coalition?

The WBBM article discussed in recent post contains a strong hint that Metra may be ready to bolt the Moving Beyond Congestion coalition.

The article reports that the RTA has directed the service boards to prepare plans to achieve a balanced budget in the event the Governor and the General Assembly do no fund the $226 million operating deficit in 2007 alone. The directive was from Steve Schlickman, the RTA's executive director, who warned the service boards to discontinue the practice--heretofore approved by the RTA (!)-- of diverting capital funds to cover operating needs:

"There are three basic options," Schlickman said. "There are service cuts, there are fare increases, or we can continue our past practice of stealing from our capital program to pay for operations."

Schlickman said the ongoing diversion of capital funds would undermine the "basic stability" and reliability of the system by reducing the amounts available to pay for construction, rehabilitation and the purchase of new trains and buses.

The article goes on to report that Metra plans to balance its budget by just such a diversion of capital funds to cover its relatively small operating deficit:

Metra officials said earlier this year, and reconfirmed Thursday, that they would address any such request by postponing certain capital projects. Plans that would be put on hold include locomotive remanufacturing, new radios for locomotives and cab cars, the final phase of bridge rehabilitation between 18th and 60th Streets on the Rock Island District, systemwide retaining wall rehabilitation, installation of fiber-optic communications cable, Electric District substation upgrades, signal upgrades on its Union Pacific and Milwaukee District West Lines, and work on several interlocking plants, junctions and train yards.

Metra's approach speaks volumes about the financial challenges facing the region's public transit system:

1. Metra's ability to plug its operating deficit by diverting some of its capital money underscores the fact that its financial condition is much stronger than either the CTA or Pace, both of which will have to use major fare hikes and service cuts on top of diversions of capital funds to balance their budgets.

2. The fact that Metra can so easily divert some of its capital funds without impacting service levels underscores the fact that for years it has benefited from a much higher level of capital investment than the CTA. The comparative state of the Metra rail lines and the CTA rail lines reveals the effects of years of underinvestment in the CTA's rail system.

3. Metra's willingness to ignore the RTA's directive that the service boards rely on service cuts and/or fare increases rather than diversion of capital funds to balance their budgets underscores how toothless the RTA's financial oversight is. Can anyone envision this RTA board rejecting Metra's revised budget because it relies on diversions of capital funds? Not likely.

4. Metra's unique ability to balance its budget and flaunt the RTA's directives underscores how it is the primary beneficiary of the status quo under the current RTA Act, at least with respect to capital funding.

If the Moving Beyond Congestion ship is sinking--and it truly is too soon to tell if this is the case--it looks like Metra and the RTA are the only one with life jackets. Metra's life jacket is its favorable allocation of capital funding under an unwritten RTA policy, plus its commendable ability to manage its operating costs. The RTA's life jacket is the 15 percent it takes off the top of RTA's sales tax collections, including the State match of those collections.

As for the CTA and Pace, good luck on your own Metra seems to telegraphing.


Anonymous said...

It appears that the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestions/Year-of-Decision lobbying campaign is fizzling fast at least for 2007. This is good; as it will give the RTA the time it needs to do the real planning work that should have been done all along. As presented, Moving Beyond Congestion is nothing more than a wish list of gigantic proportion for which the RTA paid a battery of well connected but underwhelming consultants - headed by local heavyweight PB - the fantastic sum of $2 million and counting.

If the RTA is really serious about transit and improving mobility, it should come back next year prepared with a truly compelling and concrete proposal to which it can make a firm-even binding commitment to deliver. For the rest of 2007, the RTA should focus its efforts on fixing the vexing CTA pension problem which will not put one more iota of service on the street but which can clear the deck for a fresh start in 2008.

Anonymous said...

As I believe that you noted elsewhere, it appears that the RTA has put most of its eggs in the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, which includes most of the highway contractor lobbying groups. This may be consistent with all of their desire to get a capital bill, but not with "Moving Beyond Congestion" in the literal sense: "Transit is a cost effective strategy to address congestion growth. However, in order to be more competitive with the auto and not be delayed in the same traffic congestion, transit only and transit priority treatments are required." Moving Beyond Congestion, Final Report, page 20 [page 23 of the pdf]
I also agree with the prior comment that the current document is an unprioritized wish list, and is guilty of many of the problems raised by the Auditor General, such as Pace proposing BRT or express bus service in corridors that compete with Metra, and in the Harlem Ave. corridor where it already has a dispute with CTA. It must be redone to conform to the Auditor's recommendations.