CTA deficit lower than predicted

For a change, the news was better than expected.

Since February, officials at the Chicago Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority, which funds the CTA, anticipated that the CTA faced a deficit as high as $87 million for last year. Their estimates were $29 million apart, but they both showed a precipitous decline in revenue during the last half of 2008, a symptom of an ailing national economy.

Today, RTA officials certified figures that showed a $56.1 million deficit at the CTA in 2008, about $2 million under the RTA's estimate and nearly $31 million below what the CTA expected. The shortfall figure was bad news, but it was better than what the agencies had predicted.

The final figure also renewed questions over how the agencies, whose officials have said they are in constant contact, could arrive at such different measurements for a figure as important as an annual budget shortfall.

CTA spokeswoman Sheila Gregory wrote after the meeting that earlier figures were preliminary since receipts from the last quarter of 2008 did not arrive until March.

"Fortunately the results were stronger than anticipated," she wrote in an e-mail.

RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman says both agencies have agreed on the new figure, which arrived about two weeks ago.

"We're in agreement," Schlickman says. "It was an accounting issue more than any type of a policy dispute or a financial dispute."

While RTA officials earlier said that the discrepancy was minor in light of the CTA's $1.3 billion annual operating budget, the figure is significant because, together with this year's projected $155 million shortfall at the CTA, it serves as a barometer of how drastically transit agencies might act to curb costs and services.

Officials have repeatedly said fare hikes and service cuts are last-resort measures, and that they are trying a variety of options to avoid them. Among them are cost cuts, the use of federal stimulus money, emergency funding, and budget cuts at the RTA, which also funds Metra commuter rail and the Pace suburban bus system.

In all, Schlickman says those measures should lower this year's shortfall to $54 million from $155 million. Additionally, he says the RTA and CTA could borrow money to pay for the 2008 shortfall and pay it back over two years. RTA staff did not immediately provide estimates on a loan interest rate, but Schlickman says an existing loan for $80 million was secured at about 1 percent interest.

Officials are also intensely lobbying state legislators to draft a new capital bill for transit spending. The last such bill, passed in 1999, provided for five years of funding, and this year's state budget, with $1.5 billion in new money for transit agencies, has relatively little in store. After inflation, transit advocates say, Gov. Pat Quinn's budget contains about half the spending power of the capital bill passed 10 years ago.