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Transit Fares Well in Budget, But Slow Payments a Bigger Problem

While schools and nonprofits across Illinois brace themselves for the potentially devastating cuts proposed in Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2011 budget, officials in many of the state’s public transit agencies are seeing their budgets climb. But some say the increase provides little relief to their more immediate problem – a failure by the cash-strapped state to fork over cash on time.

The state’s public rail and bus systems have so far made it largely unscathed through the difficult budget process, in which Quinn is trying to steer the state out of a $13 billion deficit.

“(Downstate agencies) actually have experienced an increase in operating funding over the last couple of years,” said Laura Calderon, executive director of the Illinois Public Transit Association, adding that the allocations in the draft budget was “about what’s expected.”

Under Quinn’s proposed $27 billion budget, presented last week to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly, downstate transit agencies are slated to see a 10 percent increase in grant money from the state. For MSW Projects, a small transit agency in Henry, Ill., that means a bump from $252,000 this year to $277,000 in 2011.

The increase is welcome news for the rural agency, which offers senior rides and runs fixed routes through Henry County with minivans and a 15-person van. But MSW faces a bigger problem, Calderon said – reimbursements from the state are being sent months after they are due and apprehensive banks are refusing to dole out loans to ailing agencies.

As a result, MSW Projects recently put all its employees on a four-day work schedule to avoid having to take more drastic measures.

“That is enough to keep them afloat right now,” Calderon said.

The picture is slightly different for transit in the Chicago area. The Regional Transit Authority, which includes the CTA, Metra and Pace, saw its state grants drop slightly in Quinn’s budget proposal, from $292 million this year to $285 million next. And that’s down from $302 million in FY 2009.

But Brian Imus, spokesman for the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group, said he too is more concerned that the state is late in paying nearly $250 million for transit service in the Chicago area.

“The delay, if it isn’t fixed, could have a disastrous effect on commuters,” Imus wrote in an e-mail. “The governor’s budget proposal this week doesn’t make me any more confident the state is going to be able to address this shortfall.”

Ed Heflin, manager of the Illinois Rural Transit Assistance Center, said that investing in public transit during a recession is wise because it leads to greater economic development. Every $1 spent on public transit brings a $3 return to the area, he said, and in some cases the return is as much as $8.

Public transit may be the least of lawmakers’ worries this week. Education took the brunt of the damage in Quinn’s 475-page draft budget, shouldering $1.3 billion in proposed cuts. Lawmakers now find themselves entrenched in a battle over Quinn’s suggested fix – a temporary 33 percent income tax hike to fund schools. Health, human services and local governments are also facing a loss of about $300 million apiece.

Quinn’s budget must be approved by both houses of the legislature before it can take effect for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But with lawmakers’ concerns over the November election getting in the way, some expect that serious budget reform will not take place until a special legislative session after the election.

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