Sunday, April 22, 2007

RTA Governance: A New Proposal

Under section 3.01(h) of the RTA Act the 12 board seats are allocated among the City of Chicago, suburban Cook County and the five collar counties based on population. (The Chairman's slot is not subject to this process.) Every 10 years the board seats are to be reallocated based on the results of the decennial census.

As we pointed out and as the Auditor General's Report confirmed (pgs. 107-08 of 450), the 2000 census indicates that the collar counties should gain one seat and the City of Chicago should lose one seat. This reallocation will leave the City with only four votes on the RTA board, which is insufficient to block even important RTA actions that require a super-majority vote (e.g., approval of service board budgets).

Allocating the board seats of a public transit oversight agency by population alone in a sprawling metropolitan region makes little sense when much of the population in this region lives in areas that--by considered choices of local governments and their populace--lack the density necessary to support a sizable public transit system at reasonable prices. Shouldn't the area that consumes and produces the most public transit service--namely the City of Chicago--have control of the RTA?

But wait a minute, says suburban Cook County, we contribute over half of the RTA sales taxes, so shouldn't we be in control of the RTA board? And why is the CTA represented on a service board oversight agency, but Metra and Pace are not? Do service boards have any place on the board of the agency that oversees them? Isn't that setting up the fox/chicken coop problem?

However we allocate board seats on the RTA or (hopefully) its successor agency, passions will be high. Here is a proposal that I think is both workable and fair. It creates positive incentives for local governments to provide financial support for public transit operations and to encourage transit use at reasonable fare levels. My proposal has four parts:

Part #1: Governor Selects RTA Chairman

Currently, the other RTA Board members select the RTA Chairman. Under this proposal the Governor selects the RTA Chairman. Given the large financial contribution the State of Illinois makes to the public transit system, the power to appoint the RTA Chairman seems minimally appropriate. Giving the Governor a stake in the success of the RTA should have important long-term benefits. Currently, for example, RTA requests for increased State funding are perceived to be a State "bailout" of a troubled local agency because the State has no direct stake in the RTA. In contrast, if the Governor's choice of the RTA Chairman is making the pitch for more money that pitch "reads" more like a request for more State dollars to further the State's transportation priorities, a much easier sell.

Part #2: An Equal Voice For All Areas

Every part of the region wants to have a substantial voice on the RTA Board. It makes some sense to allocate RTA Board seats--but not voting power--by population. I propose the following composition of the RTA Board: City of Chicago--4 seats; suburban Cook County--4 seats; collar counties--5 seats, one for each collar county. This distribution roughly tracks the existing population splits between the three regions, but is a bit more generous to the collar counties for two reasons: (1) the collar counties are growing relatively rapidly and (2) there is some benefit, namely, less whining, when each county has their own representative on the RTA Board.

The City's loss of one seat would result from the elimination of the CTA Chairman from the RTA Board. Note that under this proposal the RTA Board would now have more members--13 members, not including the Chairman. As discussed in the next Part, however, expanding the RTA Board to include more collar county representatives and eliminating the CTA Chairman from the Board does not necessarily mean a shift in voting power to the suburbs generally and the collar counties in particular.

Part #3: Voting Power Allocated Based On Each Area's Support For Transit

The key part of this proposal is that voting power would be allocated among the Chicago, suburban Cook County and collar county representatives based on the (1) RTA sales tax collections and (2) transit fares paid in each of those areas relative to total RTA tax collections and fare collections. Thus, let's say that the collar counties' contribution to running the RTA system via RTA sales tax collections and transit fares paid equaled 25 percent of the sales taxes and fares collected systemwide. The five collar county representatives would be allocated 25 percent of the voting power on the RTA Board, giving each collar county representative a vote worth 5 percent. If suburban Cook County contributed 40 percent of the sales taxes and fares, then each of its four representatives would have a vote worth 10 percent.

The appeal of tying voting power to the support an area gives the public transit system via its RTA sales tax collections and the transit fares paid by transit riders in that area is that this incentivizes local governments to support and encourage public transit. The next and final Part is designed it make it easier for local governments to act on this incentive, provide more support for the region's public transit system and, as a result, obtain more voting power on the RTA Board.

Part #4: Local Governments Empowered to Increase Their Support for Public Transit

Under the current RTA Act, the RTA sales tax rates (1% in Cook County and 0.25% in the collar counties) are the statutory cap. Under this proposal, these tax rates would become a floor. Each county, plus the City of Chicago, would be empowered through corporate action or voter referendum to increase their RTA tax rates. Any such increases, of course, would increase the voting power of the representatives from that county (or City of Chicago). And that is precisely the point. If an area does good by increasing its support for public transit by raising the applicable RTA sales tax rate, that area gets more voting power on the RTA Board.

This proposal satisfies the various interests articulated by the parties in the debate over RTA governance. First, it guarantees that every area has a direct and substantial voice on the RTA Board. Second, it allocates voting power by how much effort an area is making to support the public transit system via RTA sales tax collections. Third, this proposal takes into the account the effort made by the transit riders in each area to support the system through payment of fares. Finally, this proposal creates incentives for local governments to financially support public transit and to encourage transit ridership that are lacking from the current allocation of RTA Board voting power on the basis of population.

In an upcoming post I will outline some of the real-life implications of this proposal. I hope you will give this idea of weighted votes on the RTA Board tied to each area's efforts in support of the region's transit system careful consideration.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points here. There may be a 14th Amendment problem on allocating seats other than on the basis of population, but given that the RTA is a special purpose district, and not a legislature, maybe not.

I think that the other thing that must be tackled is the governance structure of the CTA. Two incidents show the problems:
1. The original doomsday plan, which would have eliminated all local bus service in Evanston, shows that the CTA Board, while relying on boarding statistics to justify diverting sales tax dollars from suburban Cook County to the CTA (instead of Pace), did not have representatives of the cities that would have been most impacted by the doomsday cuts, primarily Evanston and Oak Park.
2. While Mayor Daley "recommended" that Huberman be appointed the next CTA President, nobody suggests that the CTA Board has any real power in the matter, and many people have commented on why a nationwide search for a transit official with unquestioned credentials should but will not be conducted.

Thus, suburbanites consider the CTA to be Daley's fiefdom, which he (or at least Kruesi) expected suburban taxpayers to fund, without any voice in the matter. However, while Daley received 72% of 33% of the eligible vote in Chicago, unless some shenanigans occurred, I am confident that he received 0% of the eligible vote in the suburbs and collar counties. Furthermore, there is the perception that Daley is not willing to put any "skin" into the CTA, such as the proceeds of the bus shelter contract.

Therefore, I believe that if the CTA expects more funding from the suburbs, it must also be more responsive to its suburban riders' concerns, and this can occur only if the Board is restructured, in accordance with the recommendations of the Lipinski committee (see Testimony, pages 5 and 6). Any views on that?