Task force: transit agencies selfish, scandal-ridden

Systemic corruption, turf wars and inefficiencies are dragging down the region's transit agencies, a scathing report by a state task force concludes.

“Portions of the transit system have been plagued by scandal and corruption to the detriment of the system as a whole,” were the preliminary findings of the Northeastern Illinois Transit Task Force released Wednesday.

The group was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn this summer to identify problems and offer reforms in the wake of accusations of misconduct and political pressure at Metra made by the outgoing CEO. The task force that includes Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider, former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and Metropolis Strategies CEO George Ranney of Grayslake will make its final report Jan. 31.

The transit world is “not guided by a strong, clear vision,” the report concluded.

Significantly — Fitzgerald, who leads a committee on ethics, said there are so many complex issues to wade through he intends to wait until the January deadline rather than give preliminary recommendations now.

“We're not going to do this overnight,” he said. “When a judge considers his final decision, he doesn't issue a half-time report.”

But there was plenty to chew over in the preliminary study. Among the findings:

Ÿ The Metra scandal demonstrated that “those responsible for the transit system do not always have the rider's best interests at heart.” Many transit board members are appointed without background checks and there are no ethics rules or discipline for those guilty of misdeeds, the task force found.

Ÿ There are four transit board with 47 people appointed by 16 elected officials. The system leads to a lack of accountability and “makes it difficult to know who is responsible when the system is not functioning well,” the report stated. Instead of pushing for excellence, boards are more about representing political or geographic constituencies.

Ÿ A 2007 Illinois auditor general's report found duplication and lack of coordination among various transit fiefdoms. That situation hasn't improved in the past six years, the task force found.

Ÿ A coordinated regional transit plan to increase ridership is lacking. Traffic congestion has nearly tripled since 1980 but the percentage of commutes to work using transit have dropped from 18 percent to 13 percent in that time frame.

Ÿ The transit system under-serves the region. Only 53 percent of jobs in the six-county area can be reached using transit within 90 minutes, according to one estimate and another projection puts that number at 24 percent.

Ÿ Funding formulas encourage turf wars and a “divisiveness that splits the region and creates competition,” the report found.

Task force members also welcomed consultant Richard Mudge of Delcan, which had presented a report on funding reforms at the RTA earlier Wednesday.

Among Delcan's ideas were consolidating the four agencies into a superagency headed by one board and changing funding formulas so they're based on performance.

Asked if it's possible to shake up an entrenched system based on traditional suburban and Chicago constituencies, task force leaders were positive.

“We think we can create recommendations that will be embraced by a cross section,” Schneider said. She agreed the preliminary report was tough but “there are serious matters at hand.”

Ranney added, “it's not what we recommend ... but what happens afterward (when the state legislature convenes in early 2014). Now people are paying attention so it's important we do something significant.”

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