Saturday, December 1, 2007

RTA Innocent Victim in William Coulson's "Transit Follies" Piece

William Coulson, a Chicago lawyer who joined the board of the Regional Transportation Authority earlier this year, has posted an article entitled "Transit Follies in Chicago" on the blog of Mass Transit magazine. It is generally rare for senior public officials like Coulson to get off the reservation established by their institution's PR team. This piece, however, reads like it may have been authored by Coulson.

The article is Coulson's historical perspective on the current transit funding situation in the RTA's service area in northeastern Illinois. In the piece he portrays the RTA and the service boards--Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace--as innocent victims of bitter political infighting by politicians unable to put together a deal.

This kind of revisionist history is disappointing from an RTA board member who has signaled at least a bit of an independent streak. It also suggests that the RTA continues to be unwilling to acknowledge its role in causing the current transit funding crisis. The RTA's unwillingness to acknowledge partial responsibility for this crisis no doubt makes it a less sympathetic candidate for additional public funding.

Coulson begins by stating that "the RTA and the service boards have been warning Illinois political leaders for years that the system was seriously underfunded and heading for a serious breakdown." Actually, until the Moving Beyond Congestion effort by the current RTA administration the RTA resisted efforts to bring transit funding challenges to the attention of the Governor and the General Assembly. There was significant inter-agency discord when the CTA attempted to do so on its own.

Coulson thus ignores two major RTA failures. First, the RTA's equivocation about whether there was a transit funding problem and its resistance to going to Springfield for a fix meant that the General Assembly and the Governor now are stuck with a major "crisis" to fix. Second, despite statutory requirements that the RTA only approve service board budgets that are balanced and reasonable, the Auditor General found that the RTA had allowed the service boards to expand their service levels beyond what they could afford for at least the past five years.

A year ago, the service boards thus faced major operating deficits going into 2007. Rather than press them to make the service cuts, increase fares and/or extract labor concession at that time, as it was required to do, the RTA made a third major mistake. It approved service board budgets that were balanced only by using a plug number for substantial hoped-for additional state funding. Here is Coulson's take on that decision:

Thus, there is no dispute that the financial crisis is real and that there is a long-term plan to significantly improve the system. Enter Illinois’ unique brand of politics.

The RTA is financed largely through fares, a sales tax imposed in the six counties and a state match of 25 percent of the sales taxes raised. So optimistic was the RTA board in December of 2006 that the 2007 budgets included as projected revenue more than $200 million in what was called “New Transit Funding.”

Coulson was not on the RTA board in December 2006 and neither was I. Nonetheless, if the RTA had had some reasonable basis back then for its optimism it has yet to reveal what it was. No bill increasing transit funding had been introduced at that point. The Auditor General had not yet released its audit report. No prominent political figure had publicly expressed support for a tax increase necessary to provide the RTA with more money. The RTA was like the kid hoping for an allowance increase based on a parental statement that "we will take care of that later."

While I'm not an expert in GAAP accounting, I very much doubt that optimism over increased revenue from the timely passage of a bill increasing taxes that has yet to be introduced in the legislature or be publicly supported by any significant political figure has the necessary certainty to count as revenue. Yet, that is what the RTA did when it approved the 2007 service board budgets.

After glossing over these compounding errors, which will mean that doomsday if it ever comes will be even tougher on transit users, Coulson goes on to summarize the back and forth over the various transit bailout bills and the rancor that exists among the political leaders. He ends his piece with a bit of bravado:

What to make of it all? I have tremendous respect for the elected public officials who face the daunting task of balancing the state budget in the face of competing demands from constituents. They will have to decide ultimately how important mass transit is to the well-being and economic vitality of Illinois. And the people — who elect them — will have the final word on all this.

As an appointed board member of the RTA, I share the responsibility to provide the best transit to the people of the six-county region that the allotted financial resources will responsibly permit. If our elected leaders want a second-rate system, that is what they will get.

What is missing from Coulson's piece is any acknowledgement that in recent years the RTA failed its "responsibility to provide the best transit to the people of the six-county region that the alloted financial resources will responsibly permit." The RTA let the service boards expand service beyond their financial means and then plopped the resulting crisis into the lap of the General Assembly and Governor.

How refreshing it would have been if Coulson had said something like "the RTA made serious errors, but we have learned from those errors and with the money and increased authority you give us we will provide the best system within the financial means you provide." RTA acceptance of its share of the responsibility for the current crisis certainly would go down better than yet another threat about a "second-rate system" from an key member of a financial oversight agency that failed to do its job.


21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Today's Dilbert summarizes the rationalizing mentality.

There is also a "welfare mentality" among our politicians, from County Commissioner Sims who said to give the people a Christmas present and raise taxes, to the governor who says that he doesn't raise taxes on the people, so let's pass the GRT. This seems to fall within the pattern--don't administer your office properly, and then cry when you are not bailed out.

Anonymous said...

Coulson's wife is a Democratic house member from Glenview. (source). Not like he doesn't have a vote in the matter.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, she's a Republican.

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Elnora said...

It can't have effect in fact, that is exactly what I suppose.