It's no secret that the region's mass transit agencies are seriously underfunded. In 2008, regional sales taxes were increased and local real estate transfer taxes were boosted by 40 percent just to avoid massive service downgrades. And while such cuts were again ...
It's no secret that the region's mass transit agencies are seriously underfunded. In 2008, regional sales taxes were increased and local real estate transfer taxes were boosted by 40 percent just to avoid massive service downgrades. And while such cuts were again avoided in 2009, a recession-induced drop in sales tax revenue and discretionary funding forced the agency to close a $180 million gap through layoffs and other gimmicks (such as diverting millions in capital funds towards the operating budget). "There is no margin for error going forward,” warned Chairman Carole Brown in July.
Much of the problem is structural. The federal government has failed to make the infrastructure investments (PDF) necessary to move the U.S. into the 21st century. Furthermore, federal officials have yet to modify the ratio at which they fund all surface transit projects, which dramatically favors road construction. Locally, the CTA labors under various rigid funding restrictions, including a heavy state-mandated "recovery ratio," which stipulates that the agency has to recover 50 percent of its operating costs from riders. The state government finally passed a capital construction bill, but still transit will not receive its fair share of state resources.
During a recession, when ridership often jumps but tax revenue declines, the problem is only amplified. As a result, the system's drastic capital needs -- which Illinois PIRG pegs at $2 billion a year for the next 30 years -- are rarely met. That includes routine maintenance, fleet expansions, and route extensions to undeserved communities.
Transit advocates throughout the state are tired of the status quo. On a conference call yesterday, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and several of their allies unveiled a policy proposal that could stop some of the bleeding. With revenue ultimately generated from an income tax hike, the organizations want the General Assembly to establish a transit "rainy day fund" that would have stringent criteria for fund withdrawals so as to protect against resource diversions during the next recession.
The plan is still in its early stages; advocates are in early talks with lawmakers and the ideal size of the fund has not yet been worked out. With Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) vacating her seat, someone in Springfield will need to pick up the mantle. (That CNT's Jacky Grimshaw will be working on the Chicago Transit Board is a good sign that the Quinn administration has its head in the right place.) But it's a proposal that seems worthy of support, despite a massive budget deficit. As the Metropolitan Planning Council's Peter Skosey pointed out on the call, "Transit is a tremendous economic tool."
Stay tuned ...
Image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user sierraromeo [sarah-ji].