January 18, 2005

CHICAGO (Jan. 18)—A member of the Illinois House’s Special Committee on Mass Transit told Chicago-area transit advocates today that “there are no easy answers” on funding mass transit and that the job of financing each transit agency fairly is made more difficult by the different data-tracking and reporting systems that each agency utilizes.

“Technical support is required” if the Committee is to ensure fairness and finish its report to the General Assembly by the five-month deadline, State Rep. and Committee Member Art Turner (D-Chicago) told the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s Transportation Committee.

Turner told the MPC committee members, including UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, that a team of specialists from the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago has been contracted to assist the Committee and analyze the mix of local and state taxes that fund the Regional Transit Authority and to examine the way the RTA distributes those funds to its three operating agencies, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Metra commuter-rail system, and the PACE suburban bus network.

“Transit ridership has ballooned over the last 22 years, and ridership patterns have changed as well, but the formula for funding each of the three Chicago-area transit agencies hasn’t been changed since the General Assembly established it in 1983,” Turner said.

But how to ensure fairness and ensure a strong transportation network has been a challenge for the Committee, said UTU State Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo.

“Rep. Turner told us that every member of the Committee understands the importance of funding the different transit modes fairly,” he said. “But due to different data collection and reporting standards utilized by each agency, it has been impossible for the Committee to get an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison of the value each agency is providing to its riders or to the regional economy. That’s why the professionals at UIC have been retained to assist.”

Szabo said he would be watching the work of the Committee and its consultants carefully to make sure that UTU members working at Metra are not negatively impacted by any proposed changes in the way transit is funded.

“Of the three RTA transit agencies serving the Chicago area, only Metra is organized as a railroad company, and only Metra employees enjoy the benefits of the Railway Labor Act and the Railroad Retirement System,” he said. “We certainly would not support any changes in legislation or funding that would alter Metra’s identity or reduce its role, its funding, or its plans for expansion.”

Szabo said Rep. Turner’s report at MPC left him “some-what reassured” that while the Special Committee understands the need to recalibrate the way transit funds are distributed, it also understands that the size of the slices must not be changed unless the whole pie gets bigger.

“Rep. Turner told us he wants to make sure that there are no losers, just winners in different percentages,” Szabo said. “He also told us that the effort to adjust the transit-funding formula is going to have to have bi-partisan, region-wide support.”

“The Committee seems to understand that the real task is to find money for all modes of transit to grow, because as our highways fill up only transit has the capacity to provide additional metropolitan mobility,” Szabo said. “Where that money comes from and how it is distributed remains the challenge. UTU will be there to protect our members interests.”