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posted: 4/7/2014 5:30 AM

Can lawmakers police themselves in reforming transit?

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  • Task force co-chairs George Ranney, left, and IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, along with former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, want transit reforms.

       Task force co-chairs George Ranney, left, and IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, along with former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, want transit reforms.
    Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's one thing to welcome transit reforms in the abstract. It's quite another when the people recommending the changes say that you are part of the problem.

That's the paradox facing Illinois lawmakers in the wake of some revolutionary ideas on fixing transit in the region.

The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force issued a groundbreaking report last week that suggests merging Metra, Pace and the CTA into one superagency and liquidating the Regional Transportation Authority.

Task force members like former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald also stressed that political meddling in mass transit is not only a historical problem; it continues to this day.

Transit agencies "have been steeped in a culture of patronage for a significant period of time," the report states.

Now it's up to Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly to do something with the recommendations -- or not.

Transit expert Joseph Schwieterman is skeptical. "I think legislators are riddled with conflicts of interest due to the history of patronage and politically motivated board appointments," the DePaul University transportation professor said. "The inertia's going to be incredibly hard to break."

Illinois Campaign for Political Reform Chairman Susan Garrett, a former state senator, thinks "it's a Catch-22 where everyone is implicated. But that shouldn't deter (lawmakers) from making the necessary reforms."

However, state Rep. Jack Franks perceives a "sea change in how transit is perceived by the legislature." The Marengo Democrat noted that a bill he sponsored to eliminate pensions and benefits for transit board members died in committee three years ago only to be passed unanimously recently.

"Lawmakers understand there have to be significant reforms," Franks said.

Quinn convened the task force last year after a scandalous summer at Metra that started when former CEO Alex Clifford accused two board directors of conflict of interest and condoning political patronage.

Clifford charged that members of minority caucuses had tried to influence hiring and Speaker Michael Madigan had intervened in getting an employee a raise during Clifford's 2011 to 2013 tenure. Lawmakers denied any wrongdoing.

But the clout issue goes back decades, the report states, involving both Democrats and Republicans. For example, Metra Director Donald Udstuen, an associate of former Gov. George Ryan, steered cronies to jobs and contracts in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the report states.

"Hiring based on political considerations is corrosive to good government," the task force stated.

The report also focused on the RTA, refuting advice from Chairman John Gates to give the agency greater authority over the CTA, Metra and Pace.

Task force members pointed out hiring Madigan's son-in-law Jordan Matyas in 2011 as an RTA lobbyist and later chief of staff at a time when there was talk in Springfield of abolishing the agency.

"We cannot credibly vouch ... that the answer to decades of patronage that involved dozens of officials from both parties is to place (Metra) under the more rigorous oversight of an agency who chose to select the speaker's son-in-law as chief lobbyist," the task force concluded.

Gates shot back that Matyas "came in through the front door," and "has done a terrific job since then to advance the agency on all levels."

Not surprisingly, there's been all kinds of pushback to the report issued March 31. Among the reactions: Mayor Rahm Emanuel called task force members "propeller heads." Madigan spokesman Steve Brown dismissed the report as "amateurish." And CTA officials suggested it would create an "unnecessary bureaucracy."

Other unpopular report recommendations include: a firewall between transit agencies and politicians using clout to influence hiring or contracts; no pay for board members; nixing traditional funding formulas for performance-based ones; and requiring board members to have experience in a transit-related field.

So, where is this report going?

It's in the hands of Quinn and lawmakers now, and Brown expects the House Mass Transit Task Force to take up the issue in a few weeks.

"They will look at what can be done to improve transit services in totality," he said.

We'll give the last word to Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green.

He notes that the RTA has been "in business for 40 years -- as long as Moses was in the desert."

"To go (from four agencies) to being a single board is going to be very difficult," he said.

Got an opinion on transit reform or a traffic question? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com or follow me @dhintransit.com.

Your voice

Dwight Bouck of Wheaton is underwhelmed by the "connected car" craze. "Such connected car features (GPS and Wi-Fi) provided to the driver by the auto manufacturers increase the risk of accident and injury by the very distractions cellphone users (regardless of hands-free law) create.

The 'connected car' is a road, driver and safety HAZARD!" he wrote.

Upcoming

And speaking of Metra, the board of directors is taking their show on the road. "We want to make ourselves and our deliberations more accessible to people in the six-county region," Chairman Martin Oberman said. Metra intends to hold its meetings in locations across the six-county region periodically instead of its Chicago headquarters. DuPage County residents can catch the April Metra meeting (can you say PowerPoint presentations!) at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the DuPage County administrative building, 421 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton.

Gridlock alert

Steel yourself for daytime shoulder and lane closures along Route 14 in Palatine starting today. IDOT crews will be modernizing traffic signals and replacing sidewalks through late September.

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