UPDATE: The Senate Executive Committee Wednesday night (March 20) voted 8-5 to approve SB 1594, the legislation to merge the RTA and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Is it time to restructure the Regional Transportation Authority again?
Some advocates of public transit say no, and that even bringing the idea up now distracts from the need to get behind more funding for public transit. RTA Chairman John Gates calls the idea a "sideshow."
But George Ranney, the president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, and Frank H. Beal, the executive director, are pushing for combining the RTA and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning into a new entity with an 18-member board. They say their chart shown here says it all: Transit ridership in Chicago lags badly behind the other major legacy systems in the country.
Under their plan for a new agency board, introduced in the Legislature as Senate Bill 1594, the Chicago mayor would appoint five members, the Cook County Board President would appoint five, the collar county chairmen would appoint five and the governor would appoint three. The Kendall County chairman would appoint a 19th, nonvoting member.
Ranney and Beal don't like a 1983 restructuring that created two new service boards - Metra and Pace. The third service board is the CTA.
"Those three service boards have really led to what we see as a hugely dysfunctional situation that has essentially paralyzed any decision making except doling out money in accordance with formulas that were established as part of the 1983 compromise and shortly thereafter," Ranney says. " ... Big projects, major maintenance needs, whatever - there is no consideration given to the merits."
Beal says the current structure restricts flexibility.
"If you talk to the business community, they say, oh, you want us to invest in a system that makes judgments based on a 30-year-old formula. Count me out," he says.
Chicago transit has evolved as a hub-and-spoke operation, but that's not necessarily the best design for the region now, Beal says.
"You really ought to think about redesigning the whole configuration of the transit system," he says. "It's not even on the table because Metra is Metra and Pace is Pace and the CTA is the CTA and God forbid they should think about something different."
Although Ranney and Beal both criticize the funding formula, they don't say what they would do differently.
One transit advocate says Ranney and Beal "don't like the funding formula, but don't have clear answers."
RTA Chairman Gates says it's the wrong time to start re-tweaking the governance system because the transit systems on are a roll. For the first time in 10 years, operating expenses in the entire region are being paid for out of current revenues instead of dipping into capital funds.
The real problem, he says, is that taken together the transit systems face a $31 billion backlog of capital spending and deferred maintenance that must be addressed.
As for the chart showing the Chicago area lagging in ridership over the past 20 years, Gates says that is misleading because the method of calculating the numbers was completely revised in 1997.
"We don't want a sideshow in the Legislature when we have far more important issues to deal with," he says.
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