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RTA should fight its public transportation battles in public: Brown

Updated: October 16, 2013 6:45AM

Rather than air his agency’s internal fighting in public, RTA Chairman John Gates abruptly cancelled an important board meeting scheduled for Friday.

I hate that.

Gates imposed the cooling-off period until Tuesday so that RTA board members and representatives of CTA, Metra and Pace can work out a behind-the-scenes compromise on how to divvy up a projected $3.9 billion budget for 2014.

As an advocate of sunshine being the best disinfectant, I hate all that closed-door stuff, although if they can actually reach agreement, I can hardly argue it’s worse for the riding public than another year of budget brinksmanship.

The prospect of open hostilities had been fueled, you may recall, by this week’s exchange of public letters between city and suburban RTA board members over the future of mass transit oversight in the Chicago area.

In response to this summer’s controversies at Metra surrounding the ouster of CEO Alex Clifford, Gates had been making public statements seeking more authority for the RTA as part of any transit restructuring. Gov. Pat Quinn has a task force looking at that question.

Gates’ pronouncements prompted an irritated response from the city’s five RTA representatives, essentially telling their chairman: Speak for yourself. They argued in favor of less power for the RTA, not more, opening the door in some quarters to the idea Mayor Rahm Emanuel might be making a play to eliminate the agency altogether.

That, in turn, led to a broadside from a veteran RTA board member from the suburbs concerned Chicago may try to use the Metra problems as cover for a power grab.

In a city where too much of the public’s business is hashed out in “pre-meetings” and “pre-calls,” I found refreshing the prospect of an open disagreement between board members in a public forum.

Gates, who is responsible for getting 12 of the 16 RTA board members to agree on a budget, apparently was less enamored with the possibility of added acrimony complicating the usual tug-of-war over dollars between CTA, Metra and Pace.

The requirement for a super-majority was designed to forge regional consensus on RTA money matters by giving the five city appointees what amounts to veto power if they vote as a bloc—which has become their usual practice.

The frayed nerves over the agency’s future just so happened to come at the time of year that the RTA sets “the marks”—the agency’s jargon for its projected revenues for the coming year, including how much money each of the three service boards will receive.

By law, that work was supposed to be completed by Sunday, although if they wrap it up Tuesday, they’d still be way ahead of last year’s pace when a budget impasse ran so long it threatened to trigger a statutory cutoff of all funding.

While most of the RTA’s funding for the service boards is set by formula, those agencies have historically fought over the small percentage of discretionary funding available to the RTA. This year is no different.

Some sources told me Friday’s cancellation may actually point to progress on a budget compromise.

Among the areas of dispute is how to apportion a $100 million bond issue for capital improvements. The CTA wants a larger share than has been customary in the past. Possibly in retaliation, suburban members are pressing for the CTA to begin repaying a $56 million loan it received from the RTA in 2009. In addition, CTA is pushing RTA for a more optimistic estimate of sales tax receipts, which means more money for it to budget.

“This is always the most contentious time of the year,” Gates said. “Everybody argues for their particular geographic interest.”

While some friction is the norm, Gates said “it may be more acute these days” because of a lot of new leaders in the region asserting themselves.

He said he expects RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace officials, along with his board members and those who appointed them, to negotiate through the weekend in an effort to reach a deal before Tuesday.

“Nobody is going to be 100 percent happy,” Gates said.

I’d be happier if they fight just a little in public.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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