RTA: State money required to keep federal transit funds

Lee S. Ettleman

Unless the state grants the Regional Transportation Authority another $125 million, the agency could miss out on federal money needed to pull its budget out of its deficit.

The RTA could be eligible for up to $500 million per year as part of a federal transit bill signed in August. But to get that money, the RTA needs to match the government’s contribution, providing a minimum of $125 million annually, according to an RTA press release.

The RTA distributes funds for the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban buses.

A $54.3 million grant to the CTA from the Illinois Department of Transportation in June postponed service cuts or fare hikes the CTA discussed earlier in the year. But without additional money from the RTA, the CTA would still be in financial jeopardy.

Service cuts could inconvenience Northwestern commuters. In the spring, proposed cuts including eliminating the Purple Express service.

Justin Homer, security coordinator for the University Library, is moving to Chicago and plans to ride CTA buses and trains often.

Service cuts could slow down a bus system Homer already considers sluggish, but high gas prices mean public transportation is still more economical than driving, he said.

“I’ll use it anyway because it costs more to drive than to take the El,” he said.

The Illinois General Assembly is out of session, but it could decide to give the RTA more money when it meets for a veto session in October, said Scott McPherson, acting communications director for the RTA.

If the state doesn’t give the RTA the money then, the agency will have to wait until spring to ask for more, he said.

The federal bill doesn’t require the RTA to have matching contributions immediately, but the money would need to be there “sometime next year,” McPherson said.

Whether or not it would cut service or raise fares is still unknown, said CTA spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi. A 2006 budget addressing the issue will be released in October, but the 2005 budget has no definite provisions for dealing with the agency’s deficits.

“There’s a lot of proposals floating out there, but nothing concrete,” McPherson said. “That decision has pretty much been put on hold.”

The CTA is still putting some money into improving its services. Earlier this month, the organization approved a $17.2 million purchase of at least 125 new buses.

Reach Lee S. Ettleman at [email protected]