The beef with RTA: no service for taxes paid
By ANGIE WATSON
The clamor over the income tax surcharge last May drowned out an Illinois Senate battle that pitted the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) against several outlying collar county townships. Illinoisans who missed it then will have the chance to see it again this spring when Sen. Jerome J. Joyce (D-43, Reddick) reintroduces legislation that would allow 27 collar county townships to withdraw from the RTA system and escape its .25 percent sales tax.
The bus and rail system that serves Cook and the collar counties has been taking tax-payers in those 27 townships for a ride that has lasted 15 years and has cost them about $15 million, Joyce says. Until 1989 the townships had received no direct service for the RTA taxes they had paid since 1974. he says. "Those people feel disenfranchised from the whole system," Joyce says. "For those little towns a few thousand is a lot of money."
Joyce believes his case is strengthened this session by an auditor general's report released in December. The report shows that taxpayers in 27 of the 76 townships in Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties paid $1.4 million in RTA taxes in 1986 ($15 per person) without receiving services. "I think that if there's any sense of justice, that [the report] ought to pick up a vote," he says of the study he requested in June 1989.
In June Joyce's S.B. 62 narrowly lost in the Senate by a vote of 28-29, just two votes short of the 30 needed. He says the legislation is hard to pass because opponents can always swing votes by making deals with downstate legislators "who don't care." Joyce has been introducing legislation similar to S.B. 62 since 1974. If the bill does not pass, he hopes at least to work a compromise to refund RTA taxes yearly to the unserved townships.
Legislation to disconnect the townships from the system will also come from the Illinois House. Rep. Gerald C. "Jerry" Weller (R-85, Morris) plans to reintroduce H.B. 824 and 825 this spring. The first bill would disconnect the unserved townships from the RTA system and the second would allow townships an RTA tax refund to operate their own public transportation systems.
Weller, who made the RTA issue a centerpiece of his 1988 campaign, says he is up against Democratic efforts to protect the system. The two bills did not make it out of the Democrat-controlled Executive Committee last May, and Weller spent the session tacking amendments to the nearest vehicle bills, none of which survived. As a last resort, he unsuccessfully offered an amendment to allow representatives from the 27 unserved townships to sit on the RTA board.
RTA officials defend the .25 percent sales tax that residents of collar county townships pay by citing indirect economic and environmental benefits — transportation for workers in the county and reduced traffic and pollution. They maintain that the rural townships, even if unserved by a regular bus line, have access to at least one of 11 Metra rail lines and should pay for it.
The RTA divides funding among PACE, the suburban bus division; Metra, the commuter rail system; and the CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority. Fifteen percent of RTA sales taxes go to the RTA general revenue fund. The remaining tax money is divided among the RTA divisions. In the collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will) 70 percent of the remaining revenues go to Metra and 30 percent to PACE.
The money the 27 townships put into the system is minute. Their portion accounted for $1.4 million of the $368.6 million RTA sales taxes collected in 1986. Yet the precedent that they could set by leaving RTA would be enormous, RTA officials say. They fear the "domino effect" of townships' pulling out of the system and the complications it could bring, says Rocky Donahue, PACE intergovernmental affairs specialist: "Instead of one unit of
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government responsible for transportation you could have 236."
RTA has even more at stake. The system, which serves 2.6 million people a day in northeast Illinois, will need $8 billion to restore its entire aging infrastructure. Townships leaving the system might indicate instability to investors in RTA bonds to fund such projects. "It's important we not send mixed signals to the investment community about the solidarity of RTA to continue our commitment to the stability of our regional sales tax base," says RTA Executive Director Theodore Weigle Jr.
One of the sticking points in exempting townships is the method of collecting the RTA sales tax. The Department of Revenue, which collects the taxes for the RTA, classifies businesses by county and city, says department legislative liaison Deno Perdiou. Tracking township businesses that are not subject to the RTA tax would require a costly and time-consuming overhaul of the current system, he says.
Joyce, who represents eight of the townships that have received no direct service, calls this a "phony argument." He says that if the businesses have addresses, refunding tax money or exempting eligible townships should be no problem. Joyce says the real issue is that residents from townships on the outskirts of the counties must drive farther than others to use the service. They are paying for a service that does not serve them directly, he contends.
Rep. Leroy Van Duyne (D-83, Joliet), who has listened to the argument from the sidelines for 15 years, is also unsympathetic toward the RTA. "If they say, 'If we let them out, we'll have an avalanche.'. . ., that's their problem," he says. "You've got to go back to the underlying issue. People are supposed to get what they pay for. They shouldn't be forced to pay because they lie within a geographic boundary that's as wide as a county."
An opponent of the disconnect bill, Sen. Roger Keats (R-29, Kenilworth), says all of the townships benefit from the economic growth transportation services bring to the counties. Keats compares the RTA to the court system, a system that all citizens may not use but benefit from because of its existence. "You don't get to pick and choose in taxes," he says.
The RTA has been a source of regional conflict since its inception. Fearing an attempt by the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to subsidize the Chicago Transit Authority, all five collar counties opposed the expansion of the transit system. The 1974 referendum passed by just under 13,000 votes, with 456,475 of the 684,266 "yes" votes coming from Chicago.
RTA officials have fielded criticism from the collar county townships since. Until 1983, the RTA had one board that was swamped by the demands of operating the entire transportation system, says Terrance Brannon, PACE department manager of planning and development. "A request from a community for a little bus and $50,000 a year didn't get fair play," he says. "Early on I don't think they [RTA] had any idea what to do for these communities." Reorganization by the General Assembly in 1983 created three service boards with the RTA board acting as financial overseer. "As soon as we were established, we [PACE board] started addressing a lot of issues that were hanging out there," Brannon says. "One was providing services to areas that didn't have any."
The Channahon township and village pay 25 percent of the cost for the service and must take in $400 a month in fares to break even
Nineteen townships in Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties began receiving service from PACE for the first time in 1989, according to the auditor general's report. All of the townships should receive PACE services by mid-1990, the report says. Weigle believes efforts begun in June to provide PACE vans to the unserved townships prove that the RTA is not "indifferent" to those outlying areas. The auditor general's report that states the RTA is providing services where "population and demand warrants the expenditure of services" strengthens their case, Weigle says.
Enid Spector, division manager of the PACE paratransit program that uses vans in rural areas, says the service is provided upon request and is tailored to the needs of the township. She says it is still too early to judge the programs in these townships and is confident ridership will increase as the awareness of the service does.
Channahon Mayor Mike Rittof doubts that ridership will increase in his southwest Will County township. The Channahon township and village pay 25 percent of the cost for the service and must take in $400 a month in fares to break even, says Rittof. The service was only used three times in its first three months, he says. "I think people are so set in their daily routine that they're not relying on the bus service," he says.
Ridership has been fair to good in Will County townships of Wilmington and Manhattan, Mayors Robert Weidling and Mike Naughton say. Although they compliment PACE officials for their willingness to work with the townships, they say the service is still too limited and does not provide for day-to-day transportation needs. The requirement for 24-hour notice for specific stops is too restrictive, they say. "If they want to go to the grocery store, they don't want to call 24 hours ahead of time," Rittof says.
Rittof is among the group of township officials in southwest Will County who believe they can do the job cheaper and better serve the community than PACE. "Our best solution to the situation is to opt out and have the revenue come to us locally," Rittof says.
Operating a bus service at the local level is too costly for a small township, PACE'S Brannon contends. The average cost of a paratransit bus is $60,000 and providing a five-day, 40-hour bus route would cost $52,000 per year, he estimates. Brannon says the townships actually receive more in service than they pay for by using PACE. In 1988, PACE spent $3.9 million in Will County but received $1.3 million in RTA sales taxes.
Although the 27 townships will receive PACE services, skeptics like Van Duyne are not appeased: "The RTA has its tracks covered technically, but for all intents and purposes they have no services."
Even if Joyce's and Weller's efforts fail in the spring session, complaints from the townships will not die with them. Weller guarantees that. "We're still not happy. As far as we're concerned the RTA has built up a $1.4 million credit. There's more that needs to be done."
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