Saturday, June 9, 2007

"I Have No Damn Idea"

That was RTA Chairman Jim Reilly's assessment of what will happen in the the General Assembly and with the Governor with respect to the RTA's transit funding package, the operating funding portion of which is embodied in Amendment #2 to S.B. 572. He was speaking at the Friday meeting of the Business Leaders for Transportation, sharing the stage with Ron Huberman, the CTA's new President. There were precious few business leaders in attendance, leaving the transit aficionados hovering about tsk-tsking at the Governor's rash promise to veto any bill providing for a sales tax increase for transit, even if that increase is confined to the six counties that make up the RTA region.

Huberman opened and laid out just how grave is the CTA's financial position. According to a SWAT team of financial experts that Huberman engaged when he arrived at the CTA, the CTA "won't be able to meet payroll in October unless something is done now."

He strongly emphasized that the CTA needs to get its pension system fixed. If the legislative changes the CTA is seeking--e.g., reduced benefits for new employees and taking pensions out of the collective bargaining process--are put in place, it appears possible that the CTA can live within the operating funding that will be available if the RTA's operating funding package is passed. If not, the CTA will soon be running major deficits despite the new infusion of operating funding if S.B. 572 becomes law.

Huberman next outlined the CTA's proposed fare increases, service cuts, and other measures designed to close the $110 million hole in its 2007 budget. He revealed that the CTA has made $5-6 million more in cost cuts on top of the much ballyhooed $12.5 million in initial cuts.

Reilly said the current legislative session is the "most bizarre" he has seen in 30 years. He mourned the "deafening silence" concerning transit needs that has plagued the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative. According the Reilly, legislators and others (e.g., Tribune editorial) are beginning to get engaged.

Reilly pointed out that the Auditor General's audit report and, specifically its conclusion that the region's public transit system is underfunded relative to current service levels, did the transit agencies a big favor. Since the General Assembly commissioned the audit report, its members cannot now say that they lacked notice from a highly credible source that transit funding was a serious problem.

Neither Huberman nor Reilly focused much on the $10 billion capital component of the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative. It is likely that at this point the RTA and the service boards will be happy with whatever they can get.

Here are some other points of interest:

-- Huberman said that the CTA supports the 60% (CTA), 30% (Metra) and 10% (Pace) split of operating subsidies. He pointed out that the CTA provides 82% of transit trips and deserves a bigger share, but that the CTA recognizes that its 60% share tracks historical norms and the CTA believes it important to support the funding initiative.

-- Reilly said that on a percentage of total budget basis Pace's operating deficit is worse than the CTA's operating deficit. He indicated that without more operating subsidies Pace will have to cut its service almost in half.

-- Huberman turned out to be a strong advocate of regionalism. He stated that customers care about moving from point A to point B conveniently and do not particularly care who provides the service. He indicated a willingness to have Pace take over routes from the CTA if that makes economic and service sense. Could he be signaling that we should consider having one agency provide bus service for the region, just as ADA paratransit responsibilities were recently consolidated into Pace? At a minimum, it looks like the CTA might be willing to work with the RTA and Pace to eliminate service overlaps and the like if and when the RTA gets and exercise its expanded powers. (Amendment #1 to S.B. 572.)

-- Huberman reported that the CTA has investigated distanced-based pricing. Converting its system to such a pricing system would cost the CTA $280 million, so is not a near-term solution. He said that going forward the CTA will build into its infrastructure the flexibility to switch to distance-base pricing, which he thought is a "great" idea.

-- When asked about the every elusive universal fare card, which made a quick appearance this spring and then was consigned to oblivion once again, Reilly smiled knowingly and launched into a riff about how we will all be paying for tolls, transit, parking and hot dogs with a "private card" of some sort. Glad to see it soon will be easy to transfer from service run by one service board to service run by another! So much for Phil Pagano's promise not long ago that we would see the universal fare card in 30 days.


Moderator said...

It's good to read that Huberman was discussing regionalism. And that Reilly pointed out that PACE's operating deficit percentage is higher than the CTA. From my understanding, the CTA operating deficit is 3.8% of their total operating budget, while PACE's operating deficit is 19.1% of their total operating budget.

I'm also delighted to read that the CTA is looking to address the duplicity in bus services in suburban Cook. The auditor general's report pointed this out, but it wasn't discussed in the Audit Commission and Mass Transit committee hearing a few months ago. If we are truly moving beyond congestion, the duplicity in services needs to be addressed, since it doesn't make any sense to have multiple buses serving the same street!

Anonymous said...

Pace's operating deficit jumped up dramatically when they were "induced" into taking on CTA's paratransit service--a slick move--tailor made for the AG's windshield appraisal cum audit.

At any rate, if there is no "damn idea" at this point, why don't they ask Ice Miller Bob for some.

Anonymous said...

I would want to see Huberman's initiatives in eliminating overlap with Pace first. I would not make the leap you did to one bus company until the bus board were restructured. (There is no justification for Daley's puppets on the CTA Board running suburban bus, since they have proven they don't care about it, by making CTA suburban routes the first thing cut in any Doomsday plan, and adding the Skokie Swift this time).

Also, one must note that in such plans as the South Cook-Will Restructuring, Pace has shown an intention to move to a more community-based system, with proposed Dial-A-Ride programs, flex routes, and the like. While I don't know whether that is pie in the sky, I am sure that a CTA Board running a 6 county bus service would have no interest in it. I am also sure that CTA would have no interest in the Pace Vanpool program, which, according to the Tribune and the Pace budget, actually makes money while making some contribution to reducing congestion.

One might ask whether an MTA model, with the MTA board itself running separate bus, rapid transit, commuter rail (and in its case, bridge and tunnel) subsidiaries would work here. However, since there is no political consensus on the proposals to restructure the RTA and CTA boards (let alone merge Pace with something else), I don't see that happening.

In this case, it seems like Huberman is saying the right things, something you accused him of not doing a couple of days ago. As for Reilly, he should have realized a long time ago that the Moving Beyond Congestion plan was dead, at least from when the Auditor General's report came out (if it ever had any traction). The AG set the agenda, not the contrary portions of MBC, such as: "There are a number of corridors in the region where there appears to be service overlap but, in many cases, the services are serving different markets. ... Services in these shared corridors are usually designed to address multiple transit markets and improve the overall level of service, rather than simply compete for the same customers." (page 25) Nobody buys that now (according to you, not even Ron).

Finally, with regard to capital, the legislature's position has always been that a capital bill is a separate issue that also needs to be done, in conjunction with school and highway construction.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the RTA amendments to SB 572, what happened to all of the governance reforms? Changes to RTA Board composition/representation are conspicously absent from SB 572. And were are all of the good government groups - MPC, Metropolis 2020, etc. SOld out for more money for transit that's where.

Anonymous said...

Oerlapping/duplicate service is a specious issue, good for politians who want to hammer transit agencies. Overlapping service is not necessarily duplicate service. Rather, overlapping service may serve different functions and/or travel markets - local versus long distance travel for example. Overlapping service can also be an effective way to increase overall service levels in critical high density travel corridors to the benefit of customers who can then catch the first bus to arrive.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, 11:29, for parroting the MBC line. That apparently wasn't the case on Harlem Avenue. Also, I know from personal experience that overlapping service resulted in worse service on outlying areas of a route. As part of the North Shore restructuring, Pace eliminated route 212, because CTA instituted competing service on the segment from Evanston to Old Orchard via route 205. As a result, the outlying portion (from Old Orchard to Northbrook Court) was made part of route 422, resulting in a 15 minute longer ride for riders in the outlying area to connect to the Purple Line (or another transfer, and assuming that CTA wants that business, which it doesn't appear to). Now it is just easier to take Metra and walk to a destination in the Loop (a result that will become necessary for most Metra commuters if CTA eliminates the station express buses, because they don't run on Sunday).

This is just one example why the regional planning element of SB 572 is essential. Why allow this type of competition, Pace's reaction to it by rerouting service, and then CTA's Doomsday threat to remove the competition by eliminating all local bus service in Evanston? None of this makes sense, but is fostered by the kind of thinking reflected in MBC.