For nine years, I have been privileged to be a member of the Regional Transportation Authority Board of Directors representing Will County. In that capacity, I am reminded daily of the importance of mass transit to the economic vitality of northeastern Illinois, including Will County, and to the quality-of-life enhancements provided by safe, clean and affordable public transportation.
The RTA’s Service Board partners, the CTA, Metra and Pace, provide more than 2 million rides each weekday. In 2015, for the fifth consecutive year, our transit riders traveled more than 4 billion miles.
Only New York riders traveled more. However, when we compare our regional capital investment in public transportation with that of New York’s, we fall short: We only invest about 40 percent of what New York does when you look at capital expenditures per resident.
Our regional capital needs are great with numbers that are almost too large to comprehend. A recent RTA study found that our 10-year capital needs are more than $37 billion. That comes to about $2 billion to $3 billion a year over the next 20 years.
That’s what we need to address our backlog of deferred investments and keep up with ongoing reinvestment needs. These costs are for repairing/replacing bridges, replacing tracks, purchasing and rehabbing buses and trains, rehabbing stations and making other improvements to achieve a State of Good Repair, when assets are operating at their full performance level.
More than 30 percent of our assets are now beyond their useful life, including rolling stock, stations and guideway. It may not sound glamorous, but it is essential we make these investments now and in the coming years.
Thanks to careful planning, budgeting and the outstanding work done by Metra, Pace, CTA and RTA, the system suffers relatively few major breakdowns. But that is only going to be possible for so long as our system continues to age and maintenance costs continue to rise.
In Will County, residents use our system to move around the county or to head downtown. We have four Metra lines, eight Metra rail stations and 32 Pace routes. We know our residents rely on mass transportation just as others do throughout the region.
Thousands of Will County residents board these buses and trains every day, for good reason. It is estimated that they can save more than $11,000 a year when they switch their daily commutes from car to public transportation.
Even if you don’t ride, you benefit from public transportation and the RTA’s work in our area. RTA staff recently participated in the Will Connects 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan. The plan, approved by the Will County Board in March, identifies the county’s roadway investment priorities and articulates the desire for the county to partner with public transportation agencies such as the RTA, Metra and Pace.
The plan highlights the importance of transit supportive development. Tied to that, the RTA has provided dollars to support many transit planning activities within the county that have led to major transit improvements, such as Bus-On-Shoulder along I-55, The Multi-Modal Transportation Center in Joliet and the new transportation center underway in Romeoville.
Over the past few years, the RTA has supported more than 40 planning studies for Will County. Regional transit operations are largely funded by the fares riders pay and the sales tax we all pay when we shop in our region. Last year, $47 million in sales tax was collected in Will County.
There is no question that Will County residents benefit from our public transportation system. Funding the system, to ensure our children and grandchildren have access to an asset that’s part of the historic success of our area, should be a top priority for us all.
We cannot take it for granted or forget its importance. It’s a benefit we all share and it’s critical that we continue to invest in it so it is so the next generation can inherit a robust transit system as we all have from previous generations.
• J.D. Ross is a Will County representative on the Regional Transportation Authority Board of Directors. He is on the RTA’s Audit Committee and is the vice chairman of the Planning & Administration Committee.