CN March 8 2018

 

So how was your commute today? Quick run downtown on the Red line? Gliding into the Loop from Arlington Heights or Bolingbrook on the Metra? A Pace bus from Skokie, a crosstown CTA bus, or maybe paratransit?

Oh, you drove in and parked – or you’re one of the cool kids who started work early on your iPad pro in the back seat of an Uber?

Well, here’s one thing we all have in common. In some way or another, the policies and practices of the Regional Transportation Authority had a direct impact on how you got to work or school today. The RTA’s been around for a while now – created in 1974 – and it has had some successes. But, hey, it’s in the public transit business, so very few politicians are willing to spend tax dollars to replace imploding trackbeds and decrepit stations – so progress is slow.

In fact, in the most recent RTA assessment, they need 1.6 billion a year for the next ten years just to keep up with normal replacement of vehicles, tracks and buildings, but they already have about a 20 billion dollar backlog in projects that never got funded. The state has pretty much run away from transit funding altogether in the past few years, and let’s not even get into what’s happening with the Trump administration, which seems like it’s pretty much wiped out federal support for transit in its ballyhooed infrastructure plan.

So today, we’ve invited the guy who runs the RTA to come sit with us and answer the question, why would anybody want this job anyway?
Kirk Dillard ran twice for Governor and missed winning the Republican Primary in 2010 by a little less than 200 votes. And in 2016 by about one voter per precinct. He still thinks he could’ve beat Pat Quinn in 2010, and who knows what would’ve happened if he beat Bruce Rauner in the ’14 primary?
Dillard went on to run the RTA later in 2014 and he’s been there ever since.
Dillard’s in an interesting position today. His state’s governor, and his president, are both Republicans. But he finds himself in disagreement with their transit policies. “Whether it’s Governor Rauner or President Trump, they need to understand that where transit goes the economy grows,” he declares. “It’s been proven time and time again, and governors of other states clearly understand it because they are putting substantial amounts of money (into public transit), especially as we have millennials and the generation of Uber and Lyft and the Divvy bicycles, it’s a different way that they travel.”
“The President has essentially flipflopped the traditional role of mass transit,” he continues. “It used to be an 80/20 split where we would have a 20% effort locally and the federal government will do 80. He’s flipped it upside down. If the President were sitting here where you are, Ken I would say, President Trump, how do you think for your properties in New York City or Trump Tower in Chicago, how do you think most of your employees  get to work? Whether it’s the custodians or the concierge, or your bellmen, or your maid service, they take the CTA…”

Dillard’s RTA wants to be thinking about big-picture projects for the future. But expansion projects and additional services have to wait, because unfunded maintenance is the highest priority. “We have an overall capital backlog of probably $20-billion,” he tells us. “And you’re talking about the President’s plan. He’s talking…Just to give you something to gauge the size or lack of size of the President’s plan, the President wants to have a $200-billion of federal money program. Our state of good repair needs just in Chicago is $20-billion, so we could eat up one-tenth of the President’s infrastructure plan all by ourselves.”  And New York’s backlog, he adds, is more than $100 billion, so that’s half.

“One-third of all of our assets in this area are essentially beyond their useful life,” he laments. “And our mechanics do a great job. Our system is safe. We don’t do anything that compromises safety. But the older our system gets the more expensive it is to maintain. I ride in in a car on the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Metra line that was delivered when Dwight Eisenhower was President.”

The RTA is getting squeezed from every direction. It’s not just that state and federal sources are drastically reducing their investment in equipment replacement and major renovations. The day-to-day operational funding is dropping, too.

“40% of the monies come from the riders themselves,” he explains. “Another 40% comes from the sales tax, which has been impacted by all of us buying products online. We don’t get quite the sales tax revenue that we probably think we should, and then another 20% is really supposed to come from the federal government and the state.”

“But for the first time in the history of the State, and it’s not only the RTA, it affects municipalities, the State is taking 2% of all the sales taxes that are raised in the metropolitan six-county area which the RTA is under,” he explains. “The State now takes 2% of all the sales taxes, ships it off to Springfield for the bureaucrats in Springfield to administer, so that’s a huge cut. Over a couple of year period that’s $40-million to the ridership of Metra, Pace in the CTA.”

“The state, though, has been really almost a deadbeat with respect to funding the Regional Transportation System in Illinois,” he asserts.

Gas taxes also play a part in RTA funding, but a very small part. “What we give from our gas tax to infrastructure is among the ten lowest in the United States of America,” Dillard claims. “Our gas tax has not been changed. I was Governor’s Edgar’s Chief of Staff, it hasn’t been changed since about 1990. It’s not adjusted for inflation. It is just a gallonage tax, so the buying power of the State of Illinois gas tax today is about half the 55% of what it was when it was last touched back in 1990.”

“(Indiana) and Iowa just increased its gas tax,” he tells us. “Conservative Nebraska just increased its gas tax. And one of my biggest fears, I lie in bed at night worried that even though it may be paltry, when it’s time for our State to match what we need to match from Washington for important projects like the Red Line modernization, we’re not going to be ready to go. I was on a panel in Washington recently with someone from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and my counterpart from Phoenix who said, – ‘We have our federal match all ready to go. You guys haven’t even in Illinois done an infrastructure bill in a decade. We can’t wait to take your Illinois taxpayers’ money to use for projects in Indianapolis or in Phoenix.’ It’s political malfeasance to leave monies laying on the table, and these are yours and my monies, Illinoisans’ monies that go to Washington and get redistributed. We at least ought to get our own federal tax dollars back to the State, but you’ve got to have the match out of Springfield to match it.”

 

“We have, our grandparents, my parents’ generation have built what I believe is the best mass transit system in America, and we shouldn’t be the first generation that just lets it slide,” Kirk Dillard concludes. “I guarantee you 20 years from now CTA, Metra and Pace will continue to be the primary mode of the safest and fastest transportation in a population like we have. We move 2-million people a day. One-sixth of Illinois takes the RTA system every day. That’s an amazing number.”

Read a transcript of the entire conversation here:CN transcript March 8 2018

Listen to the show here on SoundCloud. 

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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