November 18, 2004

SPRINGFIELD (Nov. 18)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said the union plans to spend lots of time over the next several months to monitor the work of a special Illinois House committee established to review the Regional Transportation Authority Act and its Transit Funding Formula.

Szabo said he would be taking an “actively cautious approach” to ensure the interests of UTU members are protected as the Special Committee on Mass Transit for Northeastern Illinois reviews the 22-year-old formula that allocates funds to the Chicago Transit Authority, the PACE suburban bus system, and the Metra commuter rail agency.

“Metra is the only railroad among the three transit providers, and our members who work for that agency enjoy all the benefits of rail employment,” Szabo said. “The UTU will be watching the Committee’s work closely to see that its deliberations do not lead in directions that might threaten the jobs or the working conditions of our Metra members. We expect to be very vigilant in watching out for our members’ interests here. A key focus will be to ensure no attack on the Metra funding pool for the benefit of another transit agency.”

Szabo said the job is a tough one.

“Nobody wants to play favorites among the different forms of transit and the different transit agencies,” he said. “The fact is, transit is underfunded, all three agencies need more money, and eventually the General Assembly is going to have to face that fact, particularly as the price of gasoline continues to rise.”

Szabo said scanting one transit agency in favor of another is likely to backfire in any case, because each is dependent on the other two for ridership.

“Suburbanites ride Metra trains to a station in the Loop, then get on a CTA bus or ‘L’ train to complete the trip,” he said. “At the same time, city people are riding Metra trains to jobs in the suburbs and transferring to PACE buses for the final mile to the office or factory. It’s really all one mutually reinforcing system, and all of the components need to be strengthened.”

Szabo said the Committee will analyze all aspects of the interagency funding formula that has prevailed since the General Assembly restructured the Regional Transportation Authority and established Metra as a separate operating agency in 1983.

“The members will look at how much RTA money is raised in the city of Chicago, how much is raised in suburban Cook County and how much is raised in the collar counties,” he said. “Then they will look at how the receipts are distributed among the three operating agencies. They plan to go into all of the details. Based upon their proposed work plan I expect they will be very thorough.”

Szabo said the chairman of the Committee, State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), has a strong record for supporting transit in all its forms.

“The UTU has worked cordially and successfully with Rep. Hamos as long as she has been in the General Assembly,” Szabo said. “She understands our union’s positions on all of the issues. She also has a strong record for fairness in her deliberations.”

Szabo said he the UTU does not unilaterally oppose the General Assembly’s effort to revisit the RTA funding formula, but believes the deliberations must be cautious.

“It is not unreasonable to review any agreement after 22 years. It never hurts to see if we can do better. However, at the same time we must make certain that we ‘do no damage’ to a Metra system that has been successful in showing ridership growth and expansion.”

Szabo said he had been assured by several key legislators that there was no plan to ‘raid’ Metra funding, and that IDOT officials had assured him that any new proposal must have ‘regional and bipartisan support.’

“The fact that they are looking for consensus from suburban and city interests as well as Republican and Democrats is somewhat reassuring,” Szabo said. “But you can never let your guard down.”

“Perhaps,” he said, “there’s hope that in their effort to analyze the funding formula, the Committee members will encounter facts that make it clear just how essential a sound transit system is to economic growth in the Six County region. The work of this Committee could be a healthy development if it ends up showing the governor and the General Assembly why they need to work harder at finding ways to increase funding for all forms of transit. We’ll be watching it like a hawk.”