Public transit in Northeastern Illinois is dangling on the edge of a cliff, but the Regional Transportation Authority won’t say exactly what will happen if it falls off.

What it would say is that the public needs to pay attention to this issue-and now.

At an RTA board meeting last week, the heads of the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra said that fare hikes, service cuts and layoffs could be on the horizon if they don’t get the $226 million in operating funds they need by July 1 to close the 2007 budget shortfall.

“The moment of decision and crisis in 2007 is upon us,” Steven Schlickman, RTA executive director, told board members.

The RTA has also requested an additional $400 million annually to maintain existing service and $10 billion to pay for a five-year capital improvement plan.

“New funds are not a luxury, but a necessity to keep the system operating and expanding to meet the region’s mobility needs,” he said.

Last month Schlickman asked the region’s rail and bus providers to draw up contingency budgets in the event that the state legislature does not come through with the additional funds.

On his second day as CTA President, Ron Huberman declined to offer specifics about potential budget recommendations, but stressed the urgency of the situation.

“We are currently weighing all the options that we have,” Huberman said. “We know that those options could involve a great deal of different scenarios all of them being very problematic to our ridership.”

Similarly, Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross offered few details, but warned that lengthening the interval between buses would be tantamount to eliminating service in some areas. The result could be disastrous.

“There are many people who use public transit who have no other option,” he said. “No other option at all.”

Even if the RTA doubled fares, Ross pointed out, the agency would still need additional funding.

“This public transit system, given its size, cannot sustain itself on fare increases,” he said, citing the Auditor General’s March report, which confirmed the dire state of RTA finances.

Rising fuel costs, retiree healthcare benefits and security costs have all contributed to operating costs that have risen faster than the rate of inflation.

Phil Pagano, executive director of Metra, announced that they were prepared to shift $60 million in capital funds to cover operating expenses for the rest of the year. But he emphasized that this stop-gap measure would not obviate the need for a long-term solution.

“I’m not sure frankly either the public or the news media understands what that means to the Metra system and to the region,” he said. “Many of us remember what this system was like in 1976. If we do not get this funding we will get back to that.”

In a legislative session where education, healthcare and income tax reform are on the top of the agenda, getting Springfield’s attention has been difficult.

However, State Representative Julie Hamos, chairwoman of the mass transit committee, said transit funding is starting to get the attention it deserves.

“I think that what the RTA is doing to create these contingency plans will raise the ante,” Hamos said. “It’s real, they’re not hyping it for the sake of hyping it.”

RTA Director Patrick Durante said it’s time for the service boards to be specific about their ‘doomsday scenarios.’

“I think constituents and the public need to know, and therefore their representatives and senators need to know, what they will lose if we don’t get the funding we need out of Springfield,” he said.

Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning agreed.

“A 25 percent service cut doesn’t mean much to the average person because they’re not going to think that it’s their bus route unless they say the Route 60 bus,” he said.

“We need to get people to think about what these consequences mean in their everyday lives.”