RTA Fiscal Health discussed in CMAP Merger

Posted on November 28, 2012


November 15, 2012

Wednesday, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning found a need to examine transit funding and legislation before potentially merging with the Regional Transit Authority.

Randall Blankenhorn, CMAP executive director, said, “We’re concerned about the fiscal health of our transit policies.” He said to make a real change, there needs to be legislative change in how funding is allocated regionally. It is still unclear whether the merger will take place, but CMAP members agreed to continue to be part of the conversation… for now.

Metropolis Strategies, an influential company to both RTA and CMAP, proposed the merger earlier this year. Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Strategies and CMAP board member, said, “What we proposed may or may not be the solution and we’re really open to any other solution.”

Beal said Metropolis Strategies had a goal to increase weekday transit trips from 2 million to 4 million by 2040, but in the last 20 years ridership has decreased. “We have the bones of a great system,” he said. “The board knows the character of the economy is changing.”

Leanne Redden, a RTA representative, presented the CMAP board with a “RTA 101.” This included the RTA’s current funding and budget measures. Redden said “Funding and allocation is complex and difficult to rationalize” and there is “real money at stake.”

“It’s complicated, much of it is dictated by state statute,” Redden said. “The RTA needs to be looking more regionally and thinking beyond jurisdictional boundaries, and therein lies the challenge for us.” Metropolis Strategies felt that the potential merger could help this initiative, Beal said.

CMAP board chair Gerald Bennett said, “The RTA board at this point is dysfunctional… and it’s not the current board’s fault, it’s just the way of the system.”

It is the RTA’s responsibility to monitor services throughout the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace, and allocate budgets and regional resources. The organization was formed in 1974. According to Redden, the policies and funding procedures have not changed much since then.

The RTA 2012 funding is $4.1 billion. The biggest share comes from sales taxes at about $1.3 billion. The second largest share comes from operating revenue (i.e. fares) that amount to about $1 billion. This means the largest portion of the budget comes from consumers’ pockets.

Out of this fund, the largest share — $2.2 million — is allocated to CTA capital and operations. The second and third largest shares go to Metra and Pace. There are deficits on in capital and operating budgets, Redden said. “Everyone is scrambling for everything they can get, but you know, when one is gaining, someone else is losing, there’s a finite amount of money out there.”

The RTA board currently comprises 16 members: five representing the City of Chicago, five from suburban Cook County, five from collar counties, and one chair, John Gates. Redden said the board’s decisions are made “almost unanimously” and decisions are difficult when members are defending their own regions. “We were faced with real service cuts, drastic fare increases,” Leanne said. Redden said a “broader regional interest” needs to be considered, which is where the CMAP steps in.

CMAP deals with regional transportation and sustainability initiatives and members feel that a merger would yield a more regionally integrated approach to advancing RTA initiatives.

Bennett said he is afraid that passing the issue to CMAP will pass on constrictions that RTA struggles with now. “We go back to the same fight with General Assembly. The law is wrong, the formula is wrong,” Bennett said. “The whole idea of this organization being put together was because of that fight, lets get our act together”

Board member Susan Campbell said CMAP has a responsibility to continue and facilitate the discussion. No legislation has been drafted and it is still unclear whether the two organizations will merge. Both the CMAP and RTA have the goal to increase ridership and have expressed a need for regional integration.

Blankenhorn urged the public to keep an eye on the RTA budget being released at the end of the year. “If it went like the last two months went, it will be a tough budget cycle,” he said. He said it was important for the public to keep an eye on transportation initiatives.

Bennett said there is a need for an educational campaign to the general public to see where money is going so there can be a joint appeal to political entities across regions.

The CMAP board said that a merger would require much more discussion and legislative action. This was the final CMAP board meeting of the year. The next meeting is on January 9th.