Turf war causing transit gridlock in suburbs?
Pace, Metra, CTA and RTA not on same page
Seems just yesterday I was scarfing down breakfast at a transportation Earth Day Summit. Leaders from Pace, Metra, the CTA and RTA noshed on bagels, talked transit and commiserated over funding shortfalls. It was a wonky lovefest.
That's so yesterday. Last Wednesday, the CEOs of Pace, Metra and CTA unfriended the Regional Transportation Authority in a saucy letter stating the agency is an overstaffed, bureaucratic pain in the bus.
It was one of the most riveting documents I've read as a transportation reporter, with the exception of RTA Chairman John S. Gates' memo that sparked the backlash. Gates chastised the agencies for wasting millions by duplicating administrative departments, bus routes and maintenance buildings.
Given that he endures hours of excruciating PowerPoints, I thought Gates had a high tolerance for unproductive meetings. Apparently not.
"Dozens of meetings have failed to result in the implementation of any major interagency initiatives to save taxpayer dollars," he wrote, adding that $100 million in annual savings is out there.
Among his grievances:
• Each agency has its own marketing, public relations and customer service departments. That wastes money and can be confusing for riders.
• Pace and the CTA operate overlapping bus routes.
• The agencies enlist the aid of pricey lobbyists to compete against each other for federal grants.
• The agencies have separate maintenance buildings and warehouses that should be consolidated.
Let's note here that Gates has a private sector, not government, background, as a top executive at investment and real estate development firms. His bombshell landed May 25, meaning the CEOs had all Memorial Day weekend to fume. Then, Metra's Alex Clifford, Pace's T.J. Ross and the CTA's Forrest Claypool fired back with some specific complaints. Among them:
• The RTA causes expensive delays on capital projects with a bureaucracy that is duplicated by other federal and local entities.
• The RTA is guilty of "mission creep" by funding transit-oriented development projects that have no "discernible results" and divert money from buses and trains. (A transit-oriented development promotes a car-free lifestyle -- condos, offices and shops located near transit, for example.)
• The RTA frittered away $4 million on creating way-finding signs.
• The RTA is wasting money on a federal lobbying campaign.
Oh snap! But now the salvos are fired, what's next?
Transportation sages note that turf wars aren't uncommon among the CTA, Metra, Pace and RTA.
Getting consensus "requires a lot of patience and a lot of relationship building with people ... trying to convince them to follow your lead," said former RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman, who now heads up the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center.
But a drawn-out recession that's decimated transit funding is contributing to the friction, thinks DePaul transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman.
"The RTA isn't as patient as it used to be," Schwieterman said. "This is the reality of fighting over a revenue pie that's been flat for years. Everyone is feeling the pressure for an outside-the-box solution, and the RTA is turning up the heat."
If leaders at the CTA, Pace and Metra dig in their heels and refuse to consider any of Gates' recommendations, the RTA does have financial authority over them and ultimately can reject their budgets.
But "the agencies wield a great deal of political clout," Schwieterman said.
Not only that, but the RTA board isn't a monolith, and it's the RTA board that votes on agency budgets. Each board director answers to his or her own constituents, traditionally meaning Chicagoans support the CTA while suburbanites back Metra and Pace.
Pace board director and Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson said contrary to Gates' assertions, the CTA, Metra and Pace are cooperating in an unprecedented fashion. As for consolidations, that could be problematic given that each agency has a different mission.
"Is there an economy of scale?" Larson asked.
Metra board member and former Kane County Chairman Mike McCoy thinks the exchange is a healthy one.
"Truthfully, I see this as the RTA's role ... it's their job to create efficiencies between the agencies. I definitely don't think they're outstepping their bounds," he said.
What do you think? Drop me a line.
One more thing
Gates made an interesting point about reverse commuting. "Our transit system is very good at bringing suburban workers to jobs in the city but less successful at bringing city residents to suburban job opportunities," he noted. Gates added that Chicago has a disproportionate share of the region's unemployed while the majority of the jobs are in the suburbs. He called on the transit agencies to expand and improve the city-to-suburb commute.
You should know
It's interesting to note that neither side talked about duplication of leadership, and by that I mean the boards of directors on each agency. The RTA has 15 directors including a chairman who are each paid $25,000 annually. Pace has 13 members -- 12 directors who each get $10,000 a year and a chairman who receives $15,000. The Metra chairman receives $25,000 a year and the other 10 directors receive $15,000. The CTA's seven board members are paid $25,000 each. Add it up and that's more than $850,000 a year.
Folks are still opining about converting tollways to freeways. Here's what Tom McIntosh of Long Grove thinks about plans to extend Route 53 into Lake County.
The project "is just going to bring more north-south traffic to Lake County when the real problem in this county is a lack of east-west roads that can handle the current traffic," he wrote. "We have been to some Lake County traffic hearings and the officials will admit that the east-west traffic congestion is far worse than the north-south. Have you ever tried to drive from Waukegan to Woodstock on Route 120 or Lake Bluff to Crystal Lake on Route 176?
"If the state really wanted to solve this problem, they would build a east-west highway or tollway from I-94 to I-90 close to the current Route 120 first, then consider extending Route 53 north to Route 120. Besides, the environmental impact study for Route 53 is going to take a long time and it will be expensive. We have already had two Route 53 tollway experiences going from Lake County to Lockport this year for $3.10 or $6.20 round trip. On the next trip, we figured out how to get to Lockport without paying a toll.
"Now that we are used to not using the tollway with the help of our GPS, we would not use Route 53 if it were a tollway and especially if it had a 45 mph speed limit. We will spend less on tolls this year than we did last year."
Today marks the start of two road closures on Butterfield Road in Wheaton as IDOT continues its widening project. Arrowhead and Cromwell drives will close with detours posted to Wiesbrook and Orchard roads, respectively. The fun should last three weeks. For more info on local roadwork, check out ">firstname.lastname@example.org/lmiga/home;[URL].[/URL]
The Cheetos-Fullerton el stop?The Chicago Transit Authority is asking businesses to bid on naming rights at O'Hare, Fullerton, Belmont, Addison, Chicago, Grand/State, 95th, North/Clybourn, Midway, Ashland/63rd and 79th stations. Not everyone will qualify, the CTA said, noting it will choose partners based on a company's reputation and how well the name fits the station.