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Mass transit deserves help -- lawmakers must get on board

Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times

On the day two weeks ago that CTA brass came to talk to us about the agency's 2007 budget, an Orange Line train derailed in the South Loop. It was just the latest in a series of major mishaps and minor inconveniences that have made CTA a four-letter word in the minds of many riders. And it was a timely reminder of the challenge facing the CTA this year -- to convince a public and Legislature made skeptical by the agency's difficulties that it needs and deserves major funding relief.

We think the CTA, as well as the RTA, Pace and Metra, can make that case. For all its faults, the CTA provides critical and -- let's be fair -- generally adequate service to millions of riders every year. While some of its recent problems can be blamed on management screwups or uncaring employees, others were beyond the agency's control. And no small amount can be blamed on funding shortfalls that the CTA -- working with its sister agencies in a campaign dubbed "Moving Beyond Congestion" -- is hoping to resolve by spring.

If it seems like the CTA is constantly begging Springfield for help, that's because it is. This year, it needs $110 million from the state by July or it could be forced to slash service. One reason for the near-annual crises is that operating subsidies have lagged: The CTA's share of the regional sales tax has not kept up with inflation, and federal aid has simply vanished. The CTA estimates that if its subsidies had kept pace, it would have another $1.6 billion a year to work with. The CTA has reduced some costs -- it cut about 1,200 jobs in the last decade. But other expenses are skyrocketing, especially health care, post-9/11 security and fuel. And it has a state mandate to boost pension funding, which will cost an extra $200 million a year by 2009.

Pace and Metra have had fewer crises than the CTA in the past, but now they are also in critical need of operating assistance -- about $90 million between them this year. The three agencies diverted nearly $100 million from their capital budgets last year to help cover operating costs, but that's a risky and desperate move that can't be continued, because those capital budgets are already severely strained. The fact that the suburban agencies are also in trouble raises the hope that a regional solution can be found.

What could stand in the way of help, however, are questions about whether the agencies, in particular the CTA, are spending their money wisely and efficiently. Those types of questions led lawmakers to order the state auditor general to study to what extent the agencies are "adversely affected by mismanagement or inefficiencies" and that, if corrected, "to what extent the improvements would result in budget savings." The RTA can cite statistics showing the agencies compare well to their peers in several areas, but the report of Auditor General William Holland -- due this winter -- will carry far more weight because he is seen as a fair and independent voice.

One proposed solution would be to raise the regional sales tax that subsidizes mass transit, which is now 1 percent in Cook County and 0.25 percent in the collar counties. A Legislative panel's report last year made a case for more revenues, and also for updating the decades-old formula for deciding how those dollars are divided among the transit agencies.

The operating deficits are only half of the problem. The region's vast capital needs also demand attention. Any CTA rail rider who has suffered through its numerous "slow zones" has experienced firsthand the price of deferred maintenance and postponed projects. There has been no state mechanism to fund transit's capital needs since the Illinois FIRST program expired three years ago. The RTA estimates that the region needs $1 billion a year just to keep its existing transit system in good condition. Lawmakers need to approve a new state capital program, and the Democrats who dominate the local political scene should use their party's newfound clout in Washington to press for more federal help as well.

The RTA calls 2007 "The Year of Decision." We could slash routes and raise fares and drive riders away. Or we could protect an investment that helps even those who never set foot on a train or a bus, by contributing to less congested roads, cleaner air and a thriving economy. Those benefits don't come free. We should be prepared to pay for them. Are we?

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