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Preckwinkle backs down from plan to slash $2 million payment to CTA

Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is backing off a proposal to slash a $2 million subsidy the county sends to the Chicago Transit Authority.

Preckwinkle and transit officials Tuesday worked out a deal that means the county will continue sending the money to the CTA, as it has done for the past 30 years. But officials remained tight-lipped about the details of the deal.

For several decades now the city and county have agreed, under a provision in state law, to pay the transit agency a combined $5 million annually, with the city kicking in $3 million and the county kicking in $2 million. But Preckwinkle’s proposal to reduce the county’s share to $675,000 could have triggered a $168 million loss in funding the Regional Transportation Authority sends to the cash-strapped CTA, Claypool told reporters.

Risking a battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Claypool, Preckwinkle suggested last week that the city should pay more.

“I think there’s a possibility for the city to up its commitment,” Preckwinkle, a former Chicago alderman, told the Sun-Times on Friday. “When I was a member of the City Council, I consistently argued that the city needed to contribute more to CTA on an annual basis — and city riders are the principal users of CTA.”

Before the meeting Tuesday, Claypool, a former county commissioner, told the Sun-Times Preckwinkle had rescinded her proposal. Asked why she had change of heart, he said: “I’m not exactly sure.”

Some of the $2 million in motor fuel tax revenues the county directs to the CTA could be used for back-burnered county road projects, Preckwinkle said.

Both Preckwinkle and CTA officials have cried poor over the issue. Preckwinkle has said the $2.9 billion county government is facing a $315 million shortfall in 2012. And CTA officials are working to close a $277 million gap even as they work for approval of their 2012 proposed budget of $1.24 billion.

Although it was her proposal, Preckwinkle never attached her name to the formal resolution to stop giving the money, which was instead sponsored by several commissioners. Those commissioners argued that county funding of the CTA, while allowed by state law, is not a mandate.

Commissioner Joan Murphy, a Democrat whose district stretches across the far south suburbs, was among the four commissioners sponsoring the resolution, told the Sun-Times last week “we’re sending them way too much money.”

She said the Preckwinkle administration provided her a study showing about 3 percent of suburbanites use the CTA’s bus system while roughly 11 percent use the trains.

“I think we’re sending them way too much money for the amount of ridership we [suburbanites] enjoy — in the south suburbs especially,” Murphy said.

Commissioners Deborah Sims and Jeff Tobolski, both Democrats representing suburban stretches of the county, are also backing the measure.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri, a Republican whose district straddles the city’s Northwest Side and neighboring suburbs, backed off his sponsorship after he became concerned about the ripple effect of withholding the money.

“There’s an argument out there that if the city can’t come up with this money or the CTA can’t, it could jeopardize ... funding coming in to the system,” Silvestri said, noting that he also hates the idea that the whole thing creates a “city versus suburbs discussion.”

CTA officials balked at the county withdrawing its funding, saying it would violate a decades-old “compact.” But Claypool said “I don’t know” when asked by the Sun-Times what prompted the change of heart. He was at Tuesday’s county board meeting to present the CTA budget and argue for the continued funding.

Preckwinkle also didn’t immediately comment.

Preckwinkle and Claypool have had a frosty political relationship at least since last year’s election, when Claypool, a Democrat, decided to run as an independent against county Democratic Party Chair Joe Berrios for the county assessor’s race. Preckwinkle chastised Claypool for not running as a Democrat and backed Berrios, who eventually won the seat.

Nonetheless, the two shook hands in a corridor outside the board room Tuesday.

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