Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jim Reilly's Frown Of Olympic Proportions

I happened to spot Jim Reilly, the RTA's Chairman, walking by himself outside the capital building in Springfield yesterday. He may have just emerged from the ad hoc RTA Reform Working Group that had been convened that morning by Representative Julie Hamos. (It is unfortunate that she is not posting minutes of the Working Group on her otherwise detailed transit-oriented webpage). Or maybe he was just unsuccessful in his quest for a horseshoe sandwich. But whatever the case, he was sporting a big, big frown

It seems to me that Mr. Reilly can take some cheer in today's Chicago Tribune editorial entitled "Breaking the Doomsday Cycle." The editorial urges the General Assembly to give the CTA more power to structure its pension system so that its pension costs can be contained and to strengthen the RTA by adopting Representative Hamos' RTA reform bill. Once these preconditions are met, the Tribune opines, "lawmakers will have no excuse to shortchange the CTA" and, by extension, Metra and Pace.

A Sun-Times editorial entitled "Underfunded Transit Near End of the Line" also should make Mr. Reilly feel a bit better. The editorial warns legislators not to forget about the needs of the paratransit riders. Paratransit is very expensive on a per ride basis (roughly $25 a ride) and ridership is increasing so annual costs for paratransit will soon hit $100 million with no signs of stopping there. The Sun-Times editorial is a helpful reminder that many paratransit riders have more limited transportation options than the rest of us:

Unlike many regular mass transit riders, paratransit customers don't have another option. Unless Springfield can work out a solution to the transit funding crisis in the next month or so, all bus and train riders will suffer, but paratransit users will suffer most of all.

And yet more good news on the paper front. The head of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the board chairs from seven Northeastern Illinois counties that make up the RTA region sent a letter to the Governor and the four General Assembly leaders urging them to make investment in transportation a priority issue.

The RTA Board also met today. It was an opportunity for strong hints that not just doomsday scenarios but indeed doomsday itself may be around the corner for the region's public transit system. The RTA press release quoted Executive Director Steve Schlickman warning that the "moment of crisis is upon us" and predicting some combination of fare hikes, service cuts and the like if the General Assembly does not increase State support for public transit.

Schlickman seems to have bobbled a softball question lobbed in his direction by new RTA director Judy Baar Topinka. Crain's reports the following exchange:

Topinka expressed concern that the transit funding uncertainty could jeopardize Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

“Does it sink us?” she pointedly asked Mr. Schlickman.

“I can’t speak directly to that,” he responded.

Isn't the prospect of an Olympic bid the only development of note since the RTA issued its Moving Beyond Congestion report in February and it sank like a stone in the Governor's Office and the General Assembly? Shouldn't our transit leaders be saying something like the following: "Enhancing and expanding the region's public transit system as we have proposed will cement Chicago's standing as a world-class city and we think increase the prospects that Chicago will be selected to host the 2016 Summer Olympics." Ms. Topinka was giving her executive director a great opportunity to hitch increased financial support for public transit to the popular quest for the Olympics and it appears he flubbed the chance.

Why didn't Schlickman hit that softball question out of the proverbial ballpark? Could it be that the RTA is so pessimistic about the prospects for its proposed transit funding package that it didn't want to hurt the region's chances for landing the Olympics by suggesting that improved transit would help Chicago's prospects and then see its package be rejected and the region's Olympic chances be diminished? Let's hope not.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Jimmy Reilly had no choice but to hit a soft dribbler back to the pitcher. After all his pal Richie Daley has publicly stated that one of the advantages of Chicago's Olympic bid is that the transportation, specifically the public transit is already in place. The olympic gambit may not work for the transit bosses.

Quondam El Rat said...

It's encouraging that transit seems finally to have percolated into the public discourse. And personally I'm happy to hear that Judy Baar Topinka has joined that RTA board. But since when do collar-county and downstate legislators need an "excuse to shortchange the CTA"? "Because we can" was reason enough in Pate "I Hate Chicago" Philip's day, and as far as I can see it remains so.

Moderator said...

Quondam el rat--

The Auditor General seems to pooh-pooh the notion that the CTA is being shortchanged. See roughly page 325 of 450 of the report.

What says you in response?

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