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posted: 8/28/2011 12:01 AM

Transportation officials out of touch on cost control

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

The Metropolitan Planning Council put out a statement the other day in which it could barely contain its glee over the "banner month" August has turned out to be for regional transportation.

In it, the agency pointed to three "milestones" -- the big toll increase that was approved for a major road construction plan, legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn that allows government transportation agencies to engage in private partnerships to help finance new projects, and progress toward building a Bus Rapid Transit network in Chicago.

We agree with the planning council, as we often do, that efficient mass transit is a key to the region's health and development, and to that extent, we share its enthusiasm. That said, as anyone who read our editorials about the excessive increase in tolls already knows, we're concerned that despite dire financial budgets, leaders with most of the area's main transportation agencies remain out of touch with true cost controls.

And it would be good for all those leaders to understand that their agencies' roles are not about creating jobs for the construction industry. Their role is to create efficient transportation networks for the metropolitan area.

Whatever the case, as transit agency officials mouth platitudes about budget cuts, the record is replete with examples of misguided spending at a time when competition for dollars is keen.

There is, of course, the employee perk, reported here, in which most Illinois Toll Highway Authority employees receive free passage through toll booths for most toll authority employees not just on agency business, but for daily commutes to and from their tollway jobs.

Here are some other examples of spending that undermine serious cost control:

• A $400,000 customer satisfaction survey commissioned by the Regional Transportation Authority. The agency already paid the same company, Resource Systems Group, $83,000 to come up with a way to do the survey. And the data will only cover CTA and Metra -- Pace, the suburban bus system, is doing a separate survey.

Not that we're against talking to riders, but it's too high a price at a time when tax dollars are at a premium -- and when resource-strapped agencies can barely focus on the basics, anyway.

• More than $1.2 million for two no-bid management contracts for Metra, the suburban commuter rail system. One contractor, accounting firm Blackman Kallick, was authorized earlier this year to get up to $1 million to scrutinize operating procedures in the wake of financial misconduct by the former executive director. The other, George Avery Grimes, former deputy CEO of Metrolink in Southern California, can make up to $225,000 -- $275 an hour -- to help with reforms and assist Executive Director Alex Clifford.

Meanwhile, Metra is expected to put double-digit fare hikes on the table this fall. We've previously called on transit agencies to cut the fat, and some of the transit agencies have reduced their spending. But free tolls, $400,000 surveys and $275-an-hour assistants show what's needed is a crash diet.