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posted: 10/5/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: A chance to examine the RTA

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

When people complain about the need to get rid of extra layers of government in Illinois, they're often thinking of townships or mosquito abatement authorities or sanitary districts.

Not the Regional Transportation Authority.

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But why not look at the RTA?

The 38-year-old agency owns no rails, cars or buses. It has notched some successes and seen some failures over the years.

More to the point, it's an extra layer -- an umbrella agency -- at a time when funding crises at every level of government and for all public services might call its $35 million annual cost into question.

As such, it deserves to be reconsidered -- not necessarily abandoned, but closely examined.

The RTA was created by voters in a 1974 referendum and in its current state oversees planning and financing for the CTA, Metra commuter rail and Pace suburban bus. The RTA rescued mass transit at its onset with the first influx of public money. Four years ago, it helped steer a sales tax for transit in Chicago and the suburbs.

Yet, the RTA is among those who failed to catch on to graft under former Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano and so far is unable to conjure a vote on its 16-member board to break up a power struggle between CTA, Metra and Pace over a $6 million discretionary allocation.

Lately, the civic group Metropolis Strategies has been arguing for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to merge with the RTA and take over its duties. The group believes that could save $10 million and boost transit use and efficiency -- goals that must be overriding concerns.

At various times, others have suggested a merger, with CTA, Metra and Pace melded into one big transit agency with no need for an outside referee. Still others talk about doing away with the RTA and letting the three transit boards go it alone.

This week, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin jumped into the fray over funding, accusing the RTA in a letter to its chairman of enabling "historical financial mismanagement" by the CTA.

Cronin, however, suggested in a meeting with the Daily Herald editorial board this week that the real solution could be to make the RTA stronger and give it more authority to deal with its sometimes quarrelsome charges. That, too, is worth considering.

Changing the role of transit overseer is a tall order, and each suggested realignment no doubt presents problems of its own. Yet, the RTA is presenting an opportunity for lawmakers to give it a good look. It's seeking legislation to borrow $2.5 billion for capital improvements and to set how funding is divided among the three transit agencies, with a goal of avoiding arguments like the one going on now. Once a bill is introduced, those proposals will need close scrutiny.

For now, lawmakers and others need to consider the multitude of ideas on the table for managing transit. Are we doing it right? Let's make sure.

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