Thursday, July 12, 2007

Open Letter to Representative Hamos

Representative Hamos--

It's great that you are a reader of and poster on this blog. Despite an occasional snarky comment, I think the consensus view among readers, and citizens throughout the six-county region, is that you have made an extraordinary commitment of time and energy to the public transit issue over the past few years. That dedication is admirable and much appreciated, even by those who disagree with your proposals.

I am writing because the commonly expressed view is that the RTA governance portion of your bill (Amendment No. 1 to S.B. 572) is almost certainly doomed to failure. (The comments to this recent post are indicative.) The thrust of this criticism is that the current RTA Board has failed to exercise many of the powers already vested in the Board by the current RTA Act. Two examples suffice: (1) the RTA's failure to manage the process of selecting and prioritizing capital investment decisions and (2) certifying service board operating budgets as in compliance with the statutory requirements for balanced and prudent budgets despite there use of plug numbers for many millions of dollars of new State revenue that the State had not (and has not yet) committed to provide.

Under the RTA's stewardship, public transit is this region carries far fewer customers, has a much reduced market share and costs more than it did when the RTA took on its current shape in 1983. In recent years, as the Auditor General has found, the RTA has allowed the service boards to live beyond their means, necessitating substantial State bailouts that keep getting larger each year.

Despite this evidence of sustained poor performance, your bill represents incremental change at best. Yes, the RTA will get some new powers that in the hands of effective leadership might do some good. There is little confidence, however, that this RTA Board will effectively exercise those powers. If the current RTA Board fails to exercise its current powers, why do you think the same group will act differently if vested with incrementally more power?

The region responded to past public transit crises in the mid-1970s and early 1980s with much more aggressive measures that involved new organizational arrangements and changes in leadership. Likewise, when the Chicago Public Schools were in crisis the legislature took drastic measures that radically revamped school governance and financial oversight. If we truly are in a crisis now with respect to public transit, why are your prescriptions so cautious and limited? If and when SB 572 passes, after all, the same institutional arrangements stay in place and the same set of people continue to run our region's public transit system.

Why did you reject a temporary emergency oversight authority? Why did you reject a much expanded State role in this region's public transit system to reflect the State's substantial financial contribution to that system? Why did you reject combining the RTA and the service boards? Why did you reject requiring a change in leadership as the price for increasing the RTA's taxes? Why have you rejected tolling/congestion pricing options that could deliver both money for transit and environmental/congestion relief benefits?

We know that you are working on some new transit governance proposals. (Indeed, you promised to post the public comments on the current transit governance proposal early this week.) Maybe you could take some time explain to explain to this group why you have chosen a much more modest (measured?) response to this transit funding crisis than did your predecessors in crises past.

Again, thanks for your efforts.



Anonymous said...

Your 3rd paragraph contains a lot of loaded issues.

Of course transit costs more than it did in 1983. What has the CPI gone up in the interim, 200% or better? Ridership and market share? Maybe it's because more people live and work in the suburbs now, in areas that are ill-served by transit to begin with and hard-to-serve markets even when the will is there. Sometimes people vote with their wallets, y'know?

jackonthebus said...

I think this was well stated. The question is whether it will be read. The other question is whether the tepid response is due to Hamos and the rest of the Mass Transit Committee, or the inability of this General Assembly to get much of anything of substance done (including electricity rates, property tax and assessment reform, the school funding issue, etc.).

Looking at the Illinois Constitution, Art. IV Sec. 9 says that it takes a 3/5ths vote of each house to override a veto. Art. IV Sec. 10 requires the same 3/5ths vote to have a law effective prior to [in this case] June 1, 2008. Hence, anything that now passes has to have a veto-proof majority. I (and Roland Burris on WTTW) said, just pass the laws and see if the governor vetoes them; don't sit there in negotiating paralysis with the Governor. Thus, the inertia of the legislature rivals that of the RTA.

Anonymous said...

The Board is certainly a big part of the governance problem at the RTA but not the only part. Staff is also part of the problem. The Executive DIrector and other senior staff play a significant role in determining what issues are considered by the Board and how they are presented. Staff to a large extent controls the type and quality of information presented to the BOard.

Anonymous said...

If the governance reforms at the RTA look weak, consider the potential source of these reforms - the RTA itself. The RTA probably can't openly present specific reforms for fear of riling the Service Boards but it can sure suggest and feed ideas to Hamos and her committee staff. Hamos and Schlickman aren't exactly strangers, someone might want to explore thier past business relationship.

The RTA's entire legislative gambit has been about maintaining the status quo as much as possible while getting a whole lot more of the taxpayers money.

Pete Seeger said...

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

HealthyCity said...

It seems to me that what is most likely going to happen in the next month or so will be a lot like last year. That is, a "bailout" will be passed, balancing some budgets for this year, maybe forcing some fare hikes/service cuts, because there's not enough money, maybe not, but overall pushing the main structural deficiencies again off until future years. (Can't be next year--it's a national election year. Much more important to Spkr. Madigan than Gov. Blago, which is the filter that everything happening right now should be looked through, by the way.)

Unlike last year, though, this year it'll be passed with a whole bunch of "RTA" legislation attached to it, for instance Strategic Plans, Coordination Funds, Universal Fare* requirements and the like. Maybe even titled as a "new RTA Act." It will be sold to the public as some advancement in the RTA, a new generation, but alas it will not be such.

[This reminds me of last year when they combined CATS and NIPC (with Metro 2020's approval, of course) and argued that it was the first step towards regionalism. Did nothing like that at all. In fact, created an excuse not to implement regionalism in Illinois for another 20-30 years--that's what that did.]

* What's the obsession with Universal Fare systems? Everyone knows it's Metra's problem--they're the odd guy out with how they collect fares. Not just in this region, but around the world. Why does everyone keep laying this at the feet of the RTA and the Service Boards, when it's really just one Service Board's problem.

Anonymous said...

Combining CATS and NIPC made things worse. The implementers are now completely in charge--as before--except they can claim that they are coordinating land-use and transportation---everybody go away now--its OK. Take some glossies.

So, when does the sum of 2 dysfunctional parts make an improved whole? When amateurs selected by sneaks-- are in charge! They fixed the problem with a work-around--- no change to the MPO. Brilliant. Look Frank (Beal) they went thata way. It was that easy.

Now they're going to "improve" the RTA---by not touching the CTA act. Quite the trick. Certain people will be very pleased. Many will be confused and the public will be gouged--again. A few however, will be waiting....with a list a chaplain and some carpenters. No need for a House sub-committee either.

jackonthebus said...

It looks as though there are about 5 possible outcomes:
1. Nothing passes, and transit hell breaks out. This appears to be what happened in 1981-1983, and might be what is necessary to bring real reform. However, the Democrats will have proved that they can't get the job done for the middle class, and some might face primary challenges as a result.
2. A bailout without any reform legislation, putting that issue over for a couple of years, as the increased subsidy dollars are quickly exhausted.
3. "Reform legislation," but with so many caveats in its language that no real reform occurs. That is my assessment of SB 572 as it now stands.
4. "Reform legislation" with adequate language, but not dealing with an RTA Board that has not shown an inclination to assert the powers it has, and thus not resulting in real reform as a practical matter.
5. Real reform, which would require some political upheaval (fairly unlikely with the politicians in this state, hence my demand for a recall amendment to the state Constitution).

In the meantime, we have proposed political jiggering, such as removing Carole Brown from the RTA board, but then taking the patronage post on the Metra Board away from Gary Skoien and giving it to one of Todd Stroger's cousins, who is, of course, the most qualified person he knows for the job. As previously mentioned, no touching the radioactive question of CTA reform, or restructuring the service boards themselves. Of course, everyone knows that one person runs the CTA, and we should trust his emissary Huberman to fix it, while the CTA Board itself has no inclination to exercise its oversight powers (again, just another patronage post paying $25,000 per year).

Anonymous said...

See today's Get Fuzzy, especially Satchel's and Bucky's comments about liberals in panel 3. Sound familiar in the Illinois transit context?