A good deal for the suburbs? Transit merger proposal raises questions about finances, fairness

Ripple effects continue from a proposal to abolish the boards of Metra, Pace, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority and merge the four agencies into one.

State lawmakers sponsoring reform legislation argue that the resulting Metropolitan Mobility Authority would improve service, access and efficiency.

“We’re at a once-in-a-generation opportunity due to the fact there is a fiscal cliff (and) due to the fact ridership has declined,” Democratic Sen. Ram Villivalam of Chicago said. “We need to embrace this moment in a way where we re-imagine public transit.”

But not everyone is a fan.

“I have a horrible amount of concern that we will be putting our suburban transit in jeopardy because folding Metra into the CTA will subject it to the same struggles CTA found itself unable to get out of,” Republican state Rep. Jeff Keicher of Sycamore said.

The plan also would provide $1.5 billion in extra transit money annually, as a $730 million shortfall looms in 2026. Officials haven’t given any specifics on raising those revenues, saying the restructure comes first.

  Passengers disembark a train from Chicago at the Geneva Metra station on Tuesday. The General Assembly is considering rolling Metra, Pace and the CTA into one mega agency. John Starks/

There’s a lot to unpack and more to come. Here are some takeaways:

• Shotgun wedding? At least two transit agencies are openly skeptical about a forced marriage.

The CTA contends money, not governance, is the problem. “The CTA’s position has been and remains focused on addressing the root of our region’s transit challenges — a decadeslong lack of sufficient funding,” officials said.

From Pace, “my concern is that a mega-agency would not help suburban constituencies and all the responsiveness Pace has had over the years would be lost in that mega-agency,” Executive Director Melinda Metzger said.

  Passengers disembark a train from Chicago at the Geneva Metra station on Tuesday. The General Assembly is considering rolling Metra, Pace and the CTA into one mega agency. John Starks/

• Is bigger cheaper? A study by The Civic Federation says the agencies aren’t coordinating purchasing and services, such as human resources, lobbying and auditing. Consolidation could save $200 million to $250 million a year, the federation said, citing a consultants’ report.

But “I don’t believe there will be savings from a mega-agency,” Metzger said. She cited giant commuter rail, bus and subway systems such as Boston’s MBTA and Philadelphia’s SEPTA with operating costs per mile of $25.13 and $17.63, respectively.

In contrast, Pace’s total is $9.80, according to 2022 National Transit Database statistics.

• More democratic? Villivalam thinks so. “This new governing authority will give voice to everyone in Northeastern Illinois on transit,” he said.

Currently there are 47 members on the four transit boards compared to 18 under the proposed Metropolitan Mobility Authority.

The MMA would have three directors appointed by the governor, five by Chicago’s mayor, five by the Cook County Board president, and five by the chairs of the DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will boards.

• What about Plan B? The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency in 2023 developed an action plan to fix transit with two ideas — creating a mega agency or giving the RTA more authority. Both were sent to the General Assembly, which has glommed onto the first.

“Kane County is supportive of a stronger RTA and retaining the separate service boards,” county board Chair Corinne Pierog said. “This approach protects the integrity of the three boards, thereby better preserving the recommendations outlined in CMAP's (plan). This strategy will ensure that local community input remains integral to the development of our regional transportation system.”

• No slam dunk. A number of lawmakers said they needed to know more about the legislation.

“Right now, I’m curious,” Naperville Democratic state Sen. Laura Ellman said. “I’d like to make sure the Collar Counties have a strong voice in whatever comes forward.”

“As a concept, I’m all for it,” Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates said. But the transit governance conversation is “irrelevant until we know exactly how this is going to be paid for.”

• Universal fare? One rationale for the mega agency is creating a much-desired universal fare.

Interestingly, the RTA plans to pilot a regional day pass that works on CTA, Metra and Pace this summer or fall. The regional day pass will allow riders to seamlessly transfer between transit agencies and be a step forward in simplifying fare policy, officials said.

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