New transit plan clears first hurdle. Next stop, Springfield

A plan that could raise taxes to rescue regional transit from a “fiscal cliff” and merge Metra, Pace and the CTA is now in the hands of state lawmakers.

Members of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the MPO Policy Committee on Wednesday approved a sweeping proposal aimed at improving the transit system and ensuring stable revenues.

“From Day 1, I knew this would not be an easy task. But believe me, it is transformational what you've done today,” CMAP Chairman Gerald Bennett said.

Metra, Pace and the CTA lost millions during the COVID-19 pandemic, when ridership dropped. They now face a combined $730 million annual budget shortfall starting in 2026, when federal COVID-19 relief ends.

At the behest of the General Assembly, CMAP prepared the Plan of Action for Regional Transit (PART) report that includes a controversial recommendation to integrate Metra, Pace and the CTA into one supersized agency.

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

CMAP also suggested creating a new revenue stream of up to $1.5 billion annually.

But ways to raise those funds also generated push back. Ideas included fare increases tied to inflation, a tax on services in Illinois, boosting the Regional Transportation Authority sales tax, higher gas taxes, a parking tax in Chicago, increasing vehicle registration fees and using toll revenues for transit.

Benefits would include more frequent service, faster buses, an integrated fare system, improved accessibility, and a safer, cleaner system, planners said.

Transit agencies are dubious about the merger and some county and municipal leaders pushed back against tolling increases and higher taxes.

On Wednesday, several mayors opposed wording in a resolution that the report should be submitted to the governor and General Assembly “for their consideration of the recommendations.”

“Recommendations” was too strong a word, given she didn't agree with every one, said Barrington Village President Karen Darch, who was backed by Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering.

Bennett, who is mayor of Palos Hills, suggested replacing it with the word “options,” and the resolution passed nearly unanimously. Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant voted no.

“I'm very grateful to Mayor Bennett who got us through a difficult meeting,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. “The critical issue today is that the report passed and it will be sent on to the state legislature. It reflects tremendously hard work by CMAP.”

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