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RTA: Fare hikes, service cuts ‘very likely’ if Rauner budget flies

Transit fare increases and service cuts are “very likely” if Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to trim nearly $170 million in state funding from the CTA, Metra and Pace becomes a reality, RTA officials warned Wednesday.

The Chicago Transit Authority would be “disproportionately” and “hardest hit” by the plan, shouldering a $130 million revenue loss — up from an original estimate of $105 million, Regional Transportation Authority officials said.

To put the CTA revenue loss in perspective, the RTA estimated it was the equivalent of what a hefty 30 percent jump in CTA fares would generate.

Hypothetically, a 30 percent fare bump would bring a typical L ride to nearly $3 from the current $2.25. But a CTA spokeswoman emphasized it was “way too early in this process” to speculate about what might happen.

“This is a huge bite out of the CTA’s state subsidies,” said RTA chairman Kirk Dillard, who nearly upset Rauner in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary. “It’s nearly half of their state subsidy at a time when the ridership on the L has never been higher.”

At Metra, officials estimated a 6 percent fare increase would plug the much smaller $20.8 million cut Rauner proposed to their funding but doubted that option would fly.

After a nearly 11 percent rise in Metra fares this year, and nine more years of fare increases envisioned to help bankroll a $2.4 billion modernization plan, an additional 6 percent fare bump would be “really overdoing it,” Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said.

Oberman predicted the overhaul of Metra’s fleet would go forward, but service cuts probably would be needed to plug the revenue hit, meaning fewer Metra trains could be running, possibly over fewer lines.

“There isn’t any extra money in the till at Metra, so that if we really lost those funds, we’d be forced to almost certainly cut service in some areas across the board in some way,’’ Oberman said.

And at Pace, faced with an $8.5 million chop to a federally mandated regional paratransit program for the disabled, officials estimated they would have to raise paratransit fares a whopping 67 percent, from the current $3 to $5, to plug that loss, although they emphasized they are not proposing such an increase.

The RTA board was expected to be briefed Thursday on the agency’s latest analysis of how Rauner’s proposed budget would affect the three transit agencies it oversees and the 2 million rides a day those agencies provide. The RTA estimates assume no new revenue generators, such as new taxes, which could offset cuts.

Initial projections put the hit at $127 million to all three transit agencies. But RTA officials said Wednesday that reduction was to the state match on RTA sales tax revenues only. A $34 million cut to free and reduced-price ride programs and an $8.5 million trim to the Pace paratransit program would bring the grand total to $169.5 million in lost revenue, they said.

Such cuts “are big, and they will have impacts,’’ RTA executive director Leanne Redden said Wednesday. “We are doing everything we can to be in the thick of negotiations and reduce this but, I mean, the reality is if these increases go ahead, there’s very likely to be impacts to both service and fares.’’

Dillard called it “grossly unfair” that Rauner wanted to eliminate the “paltry” $34 million the state now provides to a state-mandated free ride program for low-income riders and to a federally mandated reduced-fare program for seniors and the disabled. Together, they cost $130 million to operate.

“If the state is going to ask us to provide these services through state law, then they should provide the funding or lift the mandates,” Dillard said.

Dillard and Redden said Illinois should not be cutting its investment in a transportation system that takes people to work, attracts business to the region and leaves the state’s highways less clogged with pollution-spewing vehicles.

“Other states are investing more in mass transit and [Illinois] should not be cutting mass transit as it is a major economic development generator,’’ Dillard said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a Rauner friend and former business associate — has already railed against the cuts. The mayor labeled them “bad economics.”

“It’s wrong for the state of Illinois, and most importantly it’s wrong for the city of Chicago, and I won’t stand for it,” Emanuel told reporters last week.

Steve Schlickman, head of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted that it took the CTA and Metra years to recover the riders they lost when they faced a “doomsday” scenario in the early 1990s and enacted steep fare increases and service cuts.

In lieu of some other revenue generator, Schlickman said, “There is no real alternative but to increase fares or cut service or do both.”

During his gubernatorial campaign, Rauner mentioned adding state taxes to 32 services to raise revenue. Adding an additional RTA sales tax to those services could offset some transit revenue cuts, Schlickman said.

But Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said Wednesday that Rauner wants to see “government reform” before discussing any revenue options.