CHICAGO — With Illinois behind a record $290 million in payments to the Regional Transportation Authority, the agency is awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature on a bill that would allow it to issue an additional $140 million of taxable cash-flow notes to keep Chicago-area trains and buses running.
The RTA — oversees the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra commuter rail, and Pace suburban bus service — expects the governor’s signature shortly, allowing the agency to borrow in July, said RTA chief financial officer Joseph Costello.
The agency is on pace to deplete its cash for operations by the end of June, and so needs the infusion of funds before the end of July. “We have enough cash to continue to cover debt service and fund operating needs at the CTA, Metra, and Pace through June, but it’s pretty tight,” Costello said.
The cash-flow issue was initially on the RTA board’s agenda at its meeting last Thursday, but it was pulled as the agency awaits Quinn’s signature on legislation that would increase to $400 million the amount of outstanding cash-flow note debt the authority is permitted to have.
The RTA has not settled on a maturity date on the taxable notes. The maximum allowed is 24 months, but the agency must fit the debt into its overall portfolio and revenue projections to meet a 2.5 times coverage ratio. The issue is taxable, as it fails to meet Internal Revenue Service rules for a tax-exempt cash-flow deal.
The RTA is planning on a negotiated sale and has selected an underwriting team it will recommend to the board, but Costello declined to name members until board members approve it. The RTA is required to sell its long-term GOs competitively, but can use negotiated sales on its note issues. The agency is working with Acacia Financial Group as financial adviser and Chapman and Cutler LLP as bond counsel.
The RTA issued its first cash-flow notes last spring, in a $260 million issue, as it faced state payment delays and dwindling sales tax revenues. The authority had previously turned to commercial banking relationships for more traditional loans for cash flow, but shifted to the capital markets due to increased credit costs.
The state owes the RTA about $291 million, up from a previous high of $280 million. The funds come in the form of public transportation aid, debt-service support, and reimbursement for reduced fares.
Comptroller Daniel Hynes’ office estimated that the state will owe $5.5 billion to agencies like the RTA, schools, other vendors, and social services organizations because of a liquidity and budget crisis.
Lawmakers will try to settle on a fiscal 2011 budget before the end of the week, but the prospects for any improvement in payment delays are dim.
Facing a $13 billion deficit, the final budget is likely to include a mix of cuts and revenue increases through a tobacco borrowing and cigarette tax hike. The plan also likely will delay repayment of $5 billion to $6 billion of bills into the next fiscal year and will rely on borrowing or a pension holiday.
The RTA has $2.3 billion of outstanding GO debt that carries ratings of AA-plus with a stable outlook from Standard & Poor’s, Aa2 with a stable outlook from Moody’s Investors Service, and AA with a negative outlook from Fitch Ratings. The agency’s bonds are secured by a gross pledge of sales taxes and other state aid.
Separately, the RTA declined to comment on fiscal misconduct alleged at Metra, citing an ongoing federal investigation. The improper spending involves expenses and compensation tied to Metra’s former executive director Phil Pagano, who killed himself earlier this month just before a meeting in which the board was to receive the results of a probe into improper compensation.