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posted: 4/3/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Is transit merger good for suburbs?

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Is merging CTA, Metra and Pace into one regional transit agency a good deal for suburban commuters? That's one big question on our minds in the face of a proposal by a task force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn. The new report by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force recommends eliminating the Regional Transportation Authority, which has no trains or buses of its own but oversees the three other agencies. CTA, which operates Chicago's El and buses; Metra, the largely suburban commuter rail; and Pace, the suburban bus system, would then merge.

Protecting suburban interests from being usurped by a Chicago-centric operational focus is one imperative in considering such a superagency. It's hard to say exactly how the chips would fall, even if the Illinois legislature and Quinn adopted the task force proposal word-for-word. But several elements in the plan seem to key in on our concerns, including suggestions for the makeup of a new board of directors and for regional participation in any "yes" votes by the board.

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From a more global standpoint, transit users from the suburbs and Chicago certainly would benefit from any reorganization designed to end patronage, scandals and wasteful spending that emerge with stunning regularity.

Take Metra, where fares rose 29 percent on monthly and 10-ride passes in 2012, and 10-rides went up another 11 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, a financial scandal uncovered upon the suicide of former Executive Director Phil Pagano in 2010 led right into a 2013 patronage scandal that broke when the board paid former Executive Director Alex Clifford an amount now estimated at $668,000 to go quietly and stop claiming he was arm-twisted for jobs by the likes of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

RTA has its own problems with an independent report accusing management, including former Executive Director Joseph Costello and Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas, Madigan's son-in-law, of fostering a "toxic" environment.

The proposal released this week, engineered in part by task force co-chair George Ranney Jr., a longtime Libertyville Township resident, would put regional transit under a single 21-member board. In one scenario, five members each would be appointed by the governor and elected officials in Chicago, suburban Cook and the collar counties.

The task force also recommends that board action require yes votes from each bloc -- Chicago, suburban Cook, collar counties and state appointees.

On funding, the task force suggests upending traditional allocations that tip heavily toward the CTA. That doesn't guarantee suburban transit would fare better, but an emphasis on rewarding performance could help commuters overall.

Other elements appeal from a reform stance, including proposals that board members get little or no pay and be vetted for "a commitment to oppose, not condone, patronage."

On balance, it's a good proposal that speaks to some specific failings of late. We urge serious consideration of the plan by Madigan, other legislative leaders and Quinn.

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