Thursday, July 5, 2007

PIRG Report on Public Transit Funding

The Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has issued a report entitled "Finding Solutions To Fund Transit: Combining Accountability & New Resources For World-Class Public Transportation." The title is a mouthful, but the report is not a handful-- only 23 pages in all.

The report was authored by Brian Imus and Nick Christensen of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Phineas Baxandall, Ph.D, from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (Imus was once rumored to be the author of this blog.)

The report is a nice summary of the issues relating to public transit funding in this region, but it adds little new to the discussion. The full report opens with a chapter entitled "The Value of Public Transit in Northeastern Illinois" that is largely a rehash of a similar sections in the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion reports (preliminary (no longer available online but summary here); final).

The next chapter of the report summarizes the financial pickle in which the RTA and the service boards find themselves. This territory has been plowed before as well. The report goes on to outline seven principals for funding transit (e.g., "efficiency" and "community participation") Nothing new here either, although throughout the report does a good job of summarizing the data clearly and succinctly.

The report saves the best for last. The chapter entitled "Potential Revenue Options" is a very useful summary of how transit agencies throughout the country are funded. It discusses the benefits and problems of each type of funding method. This chapter is a good primer on the issue of transit funding.

The report lays out its recommendations in the final chapter:

-- Increase the existing RTA sales tax rate throughout the six-county region and make sure the State of Illinois matches this revenue at no less than the current 25 percent PTF rate.

-- Broaden the reach and hence revenue potential of the sales tax by applying it to at least some services.

-- Diversify the RTA's funding base by imposing other taxes, such as a real estate transfer tax.

-- Reform the RTA with new "accountability," "transparency" and "efficiency" policies. (Not real specific here PIRG guys!)

Unfortunately, the PIRG report is a bit of too little, too late. There seems to be a fairly high degree of consensus among transit aficionados, the RTA and the editorial boards that public transit should get substantially more capital and operating subsidies and that the RTA should be "reformed" in some fashion by vesting it with greater powers and responsibilities (good luck with that one with this RTA Board). The report nicely repackages this argument for more funding and tips its hat at the need for more RTA powers, but it does not really advance the argument.

The report comes as the General Assembly enters its second month of overtime session. Is there anything in the report that will prompt the clashing titans to agree on a major new transit funding plan? Probably not.

What is surprising and disappointing about the PIRG report is that it is as timid as the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion recommendations. PIRG shies away from tolling/congestion pricing even though those measures have real potential to get people to travel in something other than single occupant vehicles and to provide a funding source for public transit. Like the RTA, PIRG fails to explore potential private sector options, such as empowering jitney vans to supplement the service boards' big bus down big street model.

The "either/or" nature of this region's extendeddiscussion about public transit funding (i.e., either we fund the current system with some RTA nips and tucks or we shrink the current system) is disappointing. Are there other options for moving people from point A to point B that cannot be implemented, much less discussed, because of the occupation of the mass transportation field in this region by the three service boards and the RTA?

Over 50 years this region was confronted with the bankrupt private transportation providers and had the vision to form the CTA rather than keep the bankrupt private providers afloat even longer. Roughly 30 years ago the region confronted the financial problems of both the CTA and the suburban commuter rail and bus services by creating the RTA to provide a fresh start.

This time, when we face similarly challenging circumstances, the response of our politicians, our transit providers, and the various transportation experts like the Metropolitan Planning Council and Metropolis 2020 seems to be more of the same. Why is this crisis any different from the crises in the past that prompted major organizational readjustments and different business models? Why is the consensus response to the crisis this time so much more tepid and, frankly, uninteresting?


Anonymous said...

You have recently taken up the matter of RTA Board ineffectiveness, yet you make no mention of its leadership and its role in the affairs of the body. Or of the same dynamic with the other 3, particularly "Cet espece de tampon en caoutchouc" the CTA. Speak soon or slide on the same banana peel of credibility.

Rodrigo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jackonthebus said...

If you want real reform, I am convinced that the first one needed in this state is a constitutional amendment allowing the recall of elected officers in the executive and legislative branches in all levels of government in Illinois. Since we are talking French, we need to do something about Beauseau T. Clown in the Executive Mansion in Ravenswood Manor, and the legislators who can't get anything done, except to help AT&T. See, for instance, this Tribune article. I also heard on the radio yesterday a proposal for an "advisory referendum" to raise the income tax, like that will do any good (it has no binding force, and there can't constitutionally be a requirement that only voters who pay the income tax can vote).

The problem in this state is that we have elections where the incumbent has such a low approval rating that the only way to win is to drive the opponent's even lower, with incessant advertising funded by the Rezkos and their ilk. The voters then wait for the U.S. Attorney to do what is necessary. (But isn't Ryan still out on appeal bond?) I'm sure election turnout would be high if the only questions on the ballot are whether the Governor and certain legislators should be removed. Then the voters could install someone with an agenda that addresses their issues. There was a lot of grumbling about the California recall when it happened, but I don't hear anyone saying that Schwarzenegger is a worse governor than Gray Davis.

A few months ago, I had some respect for the Illinois House, but now I think a 1981 transit meltdown will happen again while the legislators continue to ruminate over "governance reforms" and "funding sources," and maybe that won't be a bad thing in a policy sense (although it will be to the riders). But with the current paralysis in Homer Simpson's home town of Springfield, even incremental change is pie in the sky (mmmm... pie).

Anonymous said...

Monsieur JaquesSurleBus-- C'est vrai, vous avez raison.

But with the state of the state, who's grand strategy was it to put all the transit eggs in the legislative basket this year any way?

They knew or they should have known. Pity--yet another colossus. N'est pa?

Let names be named and heads be shaved.

jackonthebus said...

If you are being serious, the first names are Frank Kruesi, Carole Brown, and Jim Reilly. You can add the followers on the Moving Beyond Congestion "bandwagon," such as Pace Chairman Richard Kwasneski and others who have automated "send your legislator a form letter" campaigns.

jackonthebus said...

If your question was "this year" that would be Reilly and the RTA.

Anonymous said...

D'accord! So now it's up to us "les enfants de la patrie" to march them all down to la Place de la Republiqe-- all with shaved heads, led by that man on LaSalle who appointed them, and followed by all their sub-appointees. So that the grandmothers and children can see who they are.

Anonymous said...

Jack -- The legislative leaders asked RTA to make this the year to bring the transit issue before the legislature (as opposed to the election year prior).

Moderator -- The PIRG report was designed to be a leave-behind for lobby visits. Not the groundbreaking, high-concept piece you want.

Anonymous said...


1) Legislative probability assessments (as in you can try it)are not encouragement.

2) Who/Which legislative leaders?

3) This year they have ALL been pricey leave-behind lobby pieces-- including Holland's fly-by audit appraisal.

4) Time to put down the spin machine and brace for medicine.

jackonthebus said...

11:25. Might be (at least on the "comprehensive reforms" that haven't gone past the negotiation stage yet). However, I don't understand how the deficit grew from about $70 million the past two years to $226 million this year and each of the Service Boards was allowed to present a budget that assumed the new funding would exist, when the RTA Act requires a balanced budget. Now, having spent themselves into the hole the first half of the year, the RTA tells the service boards to come back with draconian contingency plans to meet the requirement. That's what I mean by the RTA fomenting the crisis now. I guess Frenchie wants to send Reilly and Schlickman to the guillotine for that.

With regard to the CTA, the crisis in 2005 was supposedly over a $55 million deficit attributed to paratransit, and the legislature took care of that by appropriating the $54 million each of the two years and turning paratransit over to Pace. Now CTA has a $110 million deficit (supposedly reduced to $94 million after Huberman's cuts) without paratransit. In turn, Pace claims an $81 million paratransit deficit, with $54 million in the state budget against it. I know that fuel, power, and labor costs have gone up, but that much in one year? Apparently, the service boards were also told to take fare increases off the table in their budget documents, although the contingency plans have brought them back.

Anonymous said...

A lot of folks talking about reform at the State level--what everyone should be looking at is the 1970 Constitutional requirement that the State of Illinois hold a Constitutional Convention every 20 years. The General Assembly has to vote next year as to whether to have a ConCon, and if no one pays attention, they'll do what they did in 1988, which is vote when no one's looking to not have a ConCon.
Seriously, the GA does not work, because too much power is granted in the leadership and we have two blantantly gerrymandered legislative bodies that possess no capability for independent thought or process. ConCon is the only way to fix this mess.