Acting RTA chief aims for policy over politics
It's not the most optimal time to lead the Regional Transportation Authority.
A powerful state panel is wondering if the agency even needs to exist. The RTA has drawn a growing number of critics, including the state's inspector general, lawmakers, plus officials from Metra, Pace and the CTA. And a report unveiled in December indicated widespread discontent among authority employees.
But Leanne Redden says she's up for the challenge and whatever uncertainties lie ahead.
"I'm a transportation professional," the RTA's new interim executive director told me last week. "I'm enjoying myself right now. I'm focused on what we have to do on a day-to-day basis and I'll let Springfield handle the future."
Redden, a Schaumburg resident, became interim chief March 1. Her salary will be $222,619 a year. She has served as Schaumburg's transportation director and also as the Illinois tollway's chief of planning.
"I think I have credibility ... I've been in the region for a while and have worked with the players," Redden said. "I'm not afraid to pick up the phone and just talk to people and work through the tough issues."
The RTA oversees Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.
Redden is a regular Metra rider, who endured the polar vortex delays the week of Jan. 6. "Those were a frustrating couple of days," she said. "But fundamentally, (Metra) kept the trains running and learned a lot from the experience."
She joined the RTA in 2005 as senior deputy executive director of planning and now replaces outgoing chief Joe Costello. Redden has a master's degree in planning from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
"Pace, Metra and the CTA have to run the buses and trains," she said. "I think it is important someone is looking at things holistically. (The RTA) should think big picture."
The agency is in transition, looking for a permanent executive director. In June, current Chairman John Gates steps down. Also, the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, chosen by Gov. Pat Quinn to reform transit, has talked of rolling Pace, Metra and CTA into one agency with an undefined role for the RTA.
Redden said she knows her title is "acting," and the temporary status doesn't bother her.
"We'll see how it goes for me and the board and pick up from there."
With a board appointed by elected officials and a lot of hovering from Springfield lawmakers, the agency cannot escape politics.
Under her tenure, Redden wants people to think statistics not politics when they think of the RTA.
"I want to get us back as that credible, reliable data source. I think sometimes people have forgotten what the RTA does, what it can do and what us policy wonks continue to do," she said.
But inevitably, there will be turf wars pitting Chicago and the CTA against the suburbs, Metra and Pace. That includes the annual skirmish over divvying some $180 million in so-called "discretionary" funds, which turned budget season into transit melodrama in 2012 and 2013.
Out of the entire transit budget, "it's a relatively small amount of money," Redden said, "and I might pose it's a healthy robust debate this region should be having."
With a multibillion-dollar shortfall for capital needs like tracks, new buses and bridge repairs, "the overarching issue is money for all of us," Redden said.
She advocates all four agencies leverage their resources and come up with "creative" ways to stretch dollars.
For example, Redden points to Pace's bus rapid transit operating on Interstate 55 (and eventually on Interstate 90).
"The RTA was at the forefront of that," she said, noting the agency worked behind the scenes to change the vehicle code for buses. "That's the space we should play in."
Other projects include expanding "shuttlebug" connections -- small buses that link Metra commuters and their workplaces. That's the kind of practical and inexpensive innovation the region can do in the short-term, Redden said.
Big picture, it's time to start planning transit options for aging suburban baby boomers who can't keep their cars forever, Redden said.
Another priority is to "get people to understand why investment in infrastructure is so critical." In other words, why spending money on track improvements equals commuters getting to jobs and their kids' soccer games on time, Redden said. "I have to help tell that story."
You can browse the RTA's maps and stats at www.rtachicago.com/initiatives/rtams.html.
Reader Steve Scheffler joined the call for sidewalk shoveling. "I live in Hoffman Estates near two parks, Chestnut Park and Victoria Park," he wrote. "There are long stretches of sidewalk adjacent to both of these parks. They are never cleared of snow. The same can be said for all the walking paths that go through the parks. What exempts the Hoffman Park District from being a good neighbor? Even though there is snow on the ground, a lot of people would still like to take a stroll through their neighborhood park."
Got an opinion? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter at @dhintransit.
This one sounds gnarly. The ramp from northbound Cumberland Avenue to westbound I-90 near Park Ridge closes starting April 1 through the end of May, give or take, the Illinois Department of Transportation says. It's part of the massive Cumberland widening project. Workers will rebuild and widen the ramp. Detours will be posted.
One more thing
Weather permitting, improvements start Monday on Route 31 at Route 72 in West Dundee. The work involves adding new medians, signals and resurfacing. Brace yourselves -- expect one lane in each direction (left turn lanes will remain) now through May 31.
I-90 road warriors
Here's the latest on the Jane Addams widening rebuilding saga. Expect traffic shifts between Route 53 and the Tri-State.
The changes give workers a space to build new retaining walls. This month shifts are for eastbound traffic; westbound drivers will be doing the shift in April. All exits and entries stay open.
Blue Line buzzThe CTA is closing tracks and stations on the Blue Line O'Hare Branch weekends between Damen and Logan Square stations. The next closure occurs between Western and Damen and is in effect from 10 p.m. April 4 through 4 a.m. April 7. Free shuttle bus service will be provided. The CTA is modernizing the route, sections of which opened in 1895.