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CTA bailout may threaten suburban transit

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Daily Herald
by Joseph Ryan

A legislative move to bail out the CTA could end up pushing Pace and Metra further toward fare hikes and service cuts, transit leaders warned Tuesday.
After months of silence on transit funding amid shutdown threats, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has come out in support of throwing state money into the CTA's $100 million budget hole. But he has refused to address similar budget problems with suburban trains and buses.
Addressing only the CTA's financial woes and failing to approve transit tax hikes will bankrupt suburban transit and squander an opportunity to fix a broken system, argues Jim Reilly, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the three transit providers.
"We would certainly oppose that," he said adamantly Tuesday in an interview with the Daily Herald editorial board.
Pace and Metra are facing a combined shortfall for the year of $86 million, or about 15 percent of their total budgets. No funding plan exists for regionwide transit services for the elderly and disabled, which cost about $76 million a year.
Pace already has threatened service cuts of up to 20 percent, likely meaning no more express routes to Chicago, Sunday service or midday service as well as the loss of 300 jobs. Fare hikes also are likely.
Metra will put off $60 million in repairs this year, and that could mean more delays for commuters, authorities say. Next year, Metra Director Phil Pagano says he will start considering fare hikes and route cuts.
Transit leaders have been focusing their efforts on passing a quarter-percentage-point sales tax hike in suburban Cook and the collar counties this spring. In combination with a Chicago real estate transfer tax, the measure will bring in an extra $450 million a year for the agencies.
But Blagojevich has balked, saying he will veto any sales tax hike. At the same time, he has refused to address the issue directly or to publicly pick an alternative funding plan he would support. Instead, he has focused on passing a massive health care initiative and increase education funding.
Yet, the CTA has recently made it onto his radar screen. The agency is threatening to cut service on two el lines, eliminate 63 bus routes and raise fares by $1.50 in some cases to fill a $100 million shortfall if lawmakers don't hike taxes.
Other lawmakers also are inclined to quiet the CTA's funding pleas but reject a funding plan for all three transit agencies, said state Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat and leader on transit reform.
"I worry that the leaders will get together and cut a deal at the end of the day, and it will just be a short-term CTA bailout," she said recently.
In Springfield, there is no indication legislative leaders are taking steps to approve a mass transit funding bill.
Reilly and other transit leaders will meet Blagojevich and top lawmakers today in Springfield. Yet, House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego said the reception might not be warm, given the overall budget stalemate.
"Get in line," Cross said. "At this point there's not a lot of money."
Such a sentiment has RTA Director Steve Schlickman thinking lawmakers may not act until the fare hikes and service cuts actually materialize.
"I'm not very encouraged," he said Tuesday. "I'm actually rather fearful."


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