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RTA chair: Give RTA more power over CTA, Metra, Pace budgets

The RTA chairman or its board should have line-item veto power over the budgets of the CTA, Metra and Pace, the Regional Transportation Authority’s new chairman said Tuesday.

Kirk Dillard, elected RTA chairman in June, floated the idea during a University of Illinois at Chicago forum on “Best Practices in Regional Transit Governance.”

Even long before he became RTA chairman, Dillard said, he believed the RTA chair should have line-item veto power over the agency budgets the RTA must approve — “not necessarily to exercise but to have out there for negotiating purposes.”

Currently, if the RTA disagrees with a Chicago Transit Authority, Metra or Pace budget item, it must negotiate changes behind the scenes or impose what’s been called the “nuclear option” of rejecting an agency’s entire budget, possibly imperiling funding timelines.

  Having the ability to amend or veto a line item in an agency’s operating budget would be “a powerful tool,” especially in times of limited resources, Dillard said.

However, the RTA chairman said, he would not formally propose such an idea without discussing it with incoming Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, lawmakers, and the people who appoint transit board members — including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

If the RTA board held line-item power, Dillard said, lawmakers could require a super majority of the RTA board to exercise a line-item veto and a mere simple majority to impose a line-item reduction. Similar voting ratios are now required if Illinois lawmakers want to override gubernatorial line-item vetoes or reductions, he noted.

Metra and Pace spokesmen declined to comment Tuesday on the idea, but the CTA quickly shot it down.

  “The CTA believes that [the CTA, Metra and Pace] — which provide bus and rail service daily, and regularly monitors service planning and scheduling — should make decisions on where operating dollars are allocated,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.

Dillard’s proposal emerged during a forum at which the Eno Center for Transportation released a new report on transit governance models in six cities, including Chicago. The Eno analysis contended that the RTA currently “works well for none of the agencies [it oversees.].” The RTA is “just strong enough to be an obstruction, but too weak to have any real planning influence over the region,” the report said.

The Eno analysis said the existence of RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace boards constituted “one layer of governance too many” and that the RTA’s “lack of control over [the three transit agencies] results in limited regional coordination and chronic underfunding.”

Tuesday’s Eno report stopped short of recommending a specific transit governance model for Chicago, although a transit task force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn last year proposed that Chicago follow New York’s lead and adopt one superboard that would oversee a superagency with the CTA, Metra and Pace each functioning as separate operating arms.

However, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the idea as the concoction of  ”a bunch of propeller heads.” It went nowhere in last year’s legislative session.

And it probably won’t go anywhere in the upcoming legislative session, as Rauner has pressing pension and tax issues to deal with, said UIC Urban Transportation Center executive director Steve Schlickman.

“We are not going to get a change in governance this year,” said Schlickman, a former RTA executive director who supports the superagency model. “We are stuck with what we’ve got.”

Schlickman also noted that if the RTA board, rather than Dillard alone, was given line-item veto power, partisan battles of Chicago vs. the suburbs could continue. The RTA’s five Chicago members could block  the 16-member RTA board from racking up 12 supermajority votes, he said.

Dillard said Tuesday that the RTA currently is “working well,” adding this year’s transit agency budgets were resolved without typical bitter arguments over RTA discretionary funds, and area transit “is operating as efficiently as it has in a long time.”

No governance model is perfect, Dillard said. Instead, he said, “it comes down to who is in charge.”