Daily Herald Opinion: Metra statement wasn't giddy about transit merger, but it offered a productive start

Metra leaders didn't exactly embrace the idea of a regionwide super agency for public transportation in a published statement this week, but at least they set the right tone for negotiations.

Hearings are expected to begin within weeks on a proposal to merge Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and the Regional Transportation Authority into a single overarching body called the Metropolitan Mobility Authority, whose acronym, MMA, may be a fitting corollary for the bureaucratic fights that could lie ahead. Advocates say operating the four agencies separately misses opportunities for administrative efficiencies and streamlined customer services. The agencies themselves have been reluctant, at best, to buy into the plan.

But Metra leaders did acknowledge that the proposal provides “an opportunity to improve public transportation for this and future generations,” and they emphasized that they want to be “part of the conversation” about whatever follows.

Which, of course, they should be, as should all the affected agencies.

Centralization isn't always a financial panacea for complex operations, but it can be. And the notion of four separate governing boards and administrative teams managing finances and services that must of necessity be integrated with each other surely suggests a prime candidate for consideration.

The agencies are probably correct that, even if a merger proves financially expedient, it won't be so much so that it will wipe out an impending $730 million combined deficit staring the agencies in the face as a result of the precipitous decline in ridership brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. So, it's important to keep expectations in perspective. And suburban leaders need to be particularly careful about maintaining their influence in whatever reorganization takes place at the top of any new agency.

But that doesn’t mean that, if done right, combining the agencies wouldn’t be a strong contributing factor both to addressing the financial crisis and improving the long-term outlook for public transportation in the Chicago region, especially related to making the system easier to navigate and more responsive to customers.

“We all recognize the need for a thriving, efficient and effective system, and we will all strive for a solution that preserves and improves transportation’s essential role,” Metra's statement promised.

It's conceivable that further study could rule out centralization as a part of that solution. But, it's just as possible it could find a merger would produce a host of benefits — for riders, taxpayers and the entire public-private transportation picture here. It is important that the agencies involved recognize that possibility and, rather than oppose it defensively, approach it with creativity and a sincere commitment to the larger public interest.

Metra's statement may not have wholeheartedly expressed that commitment, but it suggests keeping an open mind toward the idea. And that's a valuable start.

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