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Illinois taxpayer cost to consolidate transit system could be out $1.5 billion

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(The Center Square) – Funding for a proposal to consolidate CTA, Metra and Pace in the Chicago area could cost taxpayers $1.5 billion a year. A Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee responds.

State Sen. Donald DeWitte, R-St. Charles, said the proposed integrated agency could have control over the entire revenue stream and while the revenue model won’t really change for suburbanites compared to people who live in Chicago, where that money goes and how it’s appropriated could change.

“Frankly, that’s creating most of the heartburn that I am hearing from my mayors and county chairman out in the suburbs about what this reorganization is attempting to do,” said DeWitte, who is a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, sponsors the Metropolitan Mobility Authority Act and said the issues with governance and service need to be tackled first before addressing how to fund the new, fully integrated agency. However the companion legislation he co-sponsored proposes $1.5 billion annually to fund public transportation.

“I think it’s important to lay down a marker on up to what amount of funding is needed to provide the service that all the residents in the RTA region deserve,” Villivalam said at an unrelated news conference. “Laying down that marker is incredibly important and then working backwards to say, ‘we need this kind of service and governance and that’s what it’ll yield.”

There’s a difference between a $730 million funding gap and the proposed cost of $1.5 billion, he said, arguing the $730 million plugs a hole.

“We all want to be building a world-class public transit system for the year 2050 and not just plugging a hole,” Villivalam said.

No one has any idea where the $1.5 billion is going to come from, DeWitte said. He supported the idea of consolidation under a stronger RTA but opposed the new board structure.

There are calls for the president of the CTA, Dorval Carter, to be removed after years of mismanagement and fiscal instability created significant debt services on the CTA, DeWitte said.

“I believe a part of this process is to try to have some of that debt service subsidized with revenue already coming from the suburbs as part of the RTA region,” said DeWitte. “I believe it’s an attempt to control that revenue stream and control how it gets spent.”

DeWitte has been on the RTA board for five years and said he believes Pace and Metra have done a good job with fiscal responsibility.

“The CTA has revised their fare structure twice in the last 12 years, the last time was in 2018,” said DeWitte. “This is why they find themselves in such dire financial straits.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed $175 million be diverted from funding roads and bridges to address the $730 million a year budget gap. State Sen. Celina, D-Chicago, addressed whether the state should invest money into a system that may undergo a massive overhaul in the next few years.

“What the governor introduced doesn’t mean that’s the end all be all and that’s the end of the conversation,” said Villanueva, who is also a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “Obviously the governor is interested in trying to help fund that [public transit], but ultimately it’s going to involve all the different parties having a longer term conversation in order to address the larger issue.”

DeWitte pointed out that the RTA is dead last among the other five major transit systems across the nation. He said, legally, the state can take motor-fuel tax dollars and move them to mass transit.

“I know the road builders and the engineers are concerned about that particular diversion. But the reality is [the Illinois Department of Transportation] is not getting work out fast enough at the backend to be able to keep up with the revenue coming in in the Road Fund system,” said DeWitte. “We will have to look at that reappropriation very carefully as part of the overall budget conversation.”

Legislators return to the capitol next week. They are scheduled for spring session through the end of the month.

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