Metra dubious about idea of merging with Pace and CTA

The original version of this article incorrectly quoted CMAP official Laura Wilkison. She said, "the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action."

A big, happy transit family of Metra, Pace and the CTA? Numerous Metra leaders on Wednesday had reservations about a merger proposed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A draft report by CMAP seeks to reinvent transit organizations and improve mobility in the region

It comes as the agencies face a $730 million annual shortfall starting in 2026 when federal COVID-19 funding is used up.

"The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action," CMAP's Laura Wilkison told the board. The key is "not only to go back to where we were (before COVID-19), but to make it better."

One seismic recommendation is to integrate Metra, Pace and the CTA into one supersized agency. The three would still run operations as separate departments with a fourth handling paratransit.

Another option would strengthen the Regional Transportation Authority to have oversight of fares, funding, planning and capital projects for the agencies.

Metra Director and former CEO Don Orseno noted, "Typically when you say 'a consolidation,' most people think that 'Wow, this is going to be great ... it's going to be streamlined.' When in fact, a lot of times, it's nowhere near that."

Planners said the move would eliminate disconnects, improve efficiency and offer benefits such as integrated fares.

Several directors were concerned about inheriting CTA pension obligations under a combined structure.

"The pension issue really seems to be the one issue that could consume any savings that were accomplished through consolidation," said Director Joseph McMahon, former Kane County state's attorney.

"So I'd like to know what those numbers are. What are the efficiencies ... we're going to achieve through consolidation?"

Metra has a good relationship with the RTA, CTA and Pace, Chairman Romayne Brown said.

"It is my hope that CMAP and the legislators understand and consider that combining the service boards could adversely impact and delay additional collaboration ... which could potentially create additional issues along with the fiscal cliff we're facing in 2026," she said.

CMAP also recommends creating a new revenue stream of up to $1.5 billion annually. It could be paid for by fare increases tied to inflation, a tax on services in Illinois and higher sales taxes, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, the report said.

"Whenever I read 'Raise taxes,' I immediately go into 'What's our best alternative to raise taxes'" mode, Metra Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said.

The report will be voted on by CMAP directors next month and then handed to the Illinois General Assembly, which required the planning agency to prepare it.

RTA warns of fiscal 'cliff,' hints at sales tax expansion and other changes

'Re-imagine our transportation system': CMAP suggests massive changes, but there's pushback

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