RTA warns of fiscal 'cliff,' hints at sales tax expansion and other changes
To combat a fiscal "cliff" forecast for public transit in 2026, the Regional Transportation Authority is recommending a menu of options that include increasing or expanding the sales tax.
The agency on Monday released its draft 2023 strategic plan, "Transit is the Answer," and opened a public comment period that extends through Jan. 9.
Along with revenues, the report explores systemwide changes to improve transit. Ideas include offering free or reduced fares for low-income residents, using transit as a tool to combat climate change, and making trips on Metra, Pace and the CTA safer.
When COVID-19 hit, ridership and fare revenues plummeted at all three agencies, and 2019 norms won't return for the foreseeable future, with an estimated shortfall of $730 million in 2026.
The RTA argues against slashing service or draconian fare hikes to bridge the gap. Instead, some suggested solutions include: increasing the RTA sales tax that helps pay for buses and trains; increasing the gas tax; and expanding the RTA sales tax onto services.
If extra revenues do materialize, the draft notes, it could allow reduced or free rides for low-income passengers, youths, students "or even fare-free transit service."
In 2023, the RTA, Metra, Pace and CTA will work to identify funding for a pilot project that would include a regional free- or reduced-fare program serving residents in need.
On other topics, the draft recommends a safety summit for all agencies. It also -- contingent on funding -- advocates for more staff in stations, trains and buses to "work with people, to observe safe riding norms, and compassionately de-escalate safety situations before they become harmful."
One ongoing frustration for riders is having to cope with three separate fare systems. The RTA suggests that "a systemwide day pass or more discounted transfers could help remove barriers to travel."
Another goal is to reduce pollution. RTA analysts noted that public transit represented less than 2% of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in 2019, while passengers vehicles released about 59% of the total.
If revenues increased, the agencies could transition their fleets to electric vehicles and rail more quickly and more thoroughly, planners said.
An online public hearing on the report is set for 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday. To join, go to rtachicago.zoom.us.
The RTA board is scheduled to vote on the plan Feb. 16.
For more information, go to rtachicago.org/region/transit-is-the-answer.