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updated: 9/15/2013 6:32 AM

Metra, Pace and the CTA waste money, RTA chief says

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  • Regional Transportation Authority Board Chairman John S. Gates Jr. is seeking reforms to Metra, Pace and the CTA, but his ideas have come under fire.

      Regional Transportation Authority Board Chairman John S. Gates Jr. is seeking reforms to Metra, Pace and the CTA, but his ideas have come under fire.
    GEORGE LECLAIRE | Staff Photographer


Metra. Pace and the CTA throw away money every year by failing to coordinate purchasing and scare off potential vendors with an isolated silo mentality, Regional Transportation Authority Chairman John S. Gates argued in a Saturday letter to regional leaders.

It's the latest in a campaign of memos arguing that operations at the four agencies ought to be consolidated, giving the RTA more oversight. Gates maintains that will save money and lead to more honest government.

He's hoping a transit task force chosen by Gov. Pat Quinn to recommend reforms to public transit will hear his appeals and include them in an upcoming report.

"The service boards operate in silos and are unaware of what the others are currently purchasing," Gates wrote to the chairman of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

But administrators with the Pace suburban bus system and the Chicago Transit Authority countered that it is Gates who is going it alone, and that he's getting his facts wrong.

"We're disappointed and frustrated that once again, Chairman Gates has issued a memo that mischaracterizes events," Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said in an email.

Procurement procedures should be more consistent, Gates wrote. "Often, qualified vendors choose not to bid on projects due to a complicated system with each service board having different regulations and procedures."

His recommendations include: giving the RTA power to come up with procurement regulations and to enforce them by annual audits, requiring Metra, Pace, RTA and CTA contracts to contain a clause allowing each other to use them to purchase goods; requiring the heads of procurement at each agency to consult regularly to see if they can buy products jointly to save money; and letting the RTA maintain a shared procurement website that lists upcoming contracts as well as a vendor database.

In calling for more joint purchasing, Gates said Pace paid more than it should have for a small number of machines dispensing transit passes for Ventra, a new fare system. If Pace had coordinated with the CTA, which bought hundreds of the machines earlier, it could have saved an estimated $65,000 per machine, he stated.

"Combing the purchasing needs of the service boards ... could result in significant savings," he wrote.

But Wilmot said the timing of the CTA's contract with Cubic, the Ventra provider, was such that there was no way Pace could have piggybacked on it. Pace had counted on selling Ventra through local retailers and only recently decided to acquire some vending machines, also, he said.

"There was never an opportunity to simply buy vending machines with CTA and we would have been more than happy to explain all of this to Chairman Gates and RTA staff had they asked before issuing this memo," Wilmot noted. "We're embarrassed and frustrated that we must now have this conversation publicly and hope that RTA leadership will bring their concerns directly to us before issuing another memo."

Officials with the Metra commuter rail service and the CTA said they could not comment on the memo as they hadn't reviewed it.

But CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the agency does participate in bulk purchasing with the city of Chicago and its sister agencies.

"The CTA has also made it standard to put piggyback language into all of its contracts and bids in order to enable other agencies to take advantage of our contracts," he said.

The friction between the RTA and transit agencies comes as all four are wrangling over budget issues and it's impact is uncertain. Usually it's the CTA battling Pace and Metra for funding with the RTA acting as referee.

Now Wilmot noted "our working relationship with CTA is probably the best it's ever been."

Gates also recommends the General Assembly give the RTA authority to enter in public/private partnerships. This "would provide the RTA with additional revenue and flexibility to address its financial challenges," he suggested. Moreover, he wants the three agencies to report regularly on hiring of minority and women-owned contractors (known as disadvantaged business enterprises) and for the RTA to certify those businesses

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