Task force: Get rid of RTA, merge Metra, CTA and Pace
One Chicago and one suburban transit agency were united against uniting as proposed in a sweeping proposal to consolidate public transit across the region.
The proposal by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force would eliminate the Regional Transportation Authority, merge the CTA, Metra and Pace, reduce 47 total board positions by more than half and change how funds are allocated.
"We recommend caution because of the potential for unintended negative impacts," said Richard Kwasneski, chairman of Pace, which would be merged into a larger superagency under the plan.
The CTA viewed the plan as "an unnecessary bureaucracy unaccountable to the region's transit riders and taxpayers," according to spokeswoman Tammy Chase.
Metra Chairman Martin Oberman delayed his response until he had read through the report.
The analysis now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who convened the group, and Illinois lawmakers.
Under the plan, the RTA's planning and oversight functions would be assumed by the new superagency.
As an example, the task force suggested the merged entity could be governed by a board of 21 people chosen by a mix of Chicago, Cook and collar county elected officials plus the governor. Under that scenario, the board would comprise five Chicagoans picked by the mayor, five suburban Cook County residents chosen by the chairman, five Collar County residents appointed by their respective county chairmen, and five residents of the six-county region selected by the governor. The board's chairman would be slated by the governor, also.
But the pool of applicants would be vetted by an independent group and would need experience in areas such as transportation, finance, construction and other criteria.
Currently, the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace all have separate boards of directors.
The superagency is "the most groundbreaking … and the most difficult (change) to accomplish," Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said Monday. But the hope would be, "one integrated board with a regional perspective that avoids parochial infighting," she explained.
Civic leader George Ranney, who co-chaired the task force with Schneider, said it's time for the city and suburbs to work as one.
"This is the epitome of a regional issue. If we can't deal with this we can't be one region with one future," he said.
Ranney added that "the RTA has got to go," explaining the agency doesn't function effectively. An RTA spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Whether elected officials will adopt the proposals in an election year is a big question. Entrenched factions among Chicago politicians support the status quo with the CTA, as do suburban counterparts for Metra and Pace.
"Change can be unnerving," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. Dillard added he wants to hear from transit agency chairmen and executive directors before deciding whether to support the proposal.
Also at play is the fact the RTA's chief operating officer is Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's son-in-law, Jordan Matyas. Ranney said he expected Madigan would put aside any "personal loyalties" in considering the merits of the proposal.
The task force also wants to eliminate dividing funds based on traditional fixed formulas. Instead, revenue would be allocated with a "dynamic" formula, partially based on how well the agencies meet different goals, such as customer service.
"Giving away tax money based on a 30-year-old tax formula is not good public policy," said Frank Beal, executive director of the civic group Metropolis Strategies, which assisted the task force.
The task force was initiated after a scandal involving political patronage broke last summer at Metra. But there are widespread concerns about inadequate funding, inefficiencies and ethics across the board.
The report also recommends ethics changes such as background checks and the ability to remove board members for misconduct.
It also suggests "the elimination of board compensation would be a good signal to the public that members of the transit boards seek no personal benefit from their service and will have no financial reasons to remain silent in the face of questionable conduct."
The report plays out in an election year for Quinn, who is challenged by Republican Bruce Rauner of Winnetka.
"There is no doubt that Illinois needs many of the ethics reforms proposed in the report, and we need to figure out a way to deliver better value for transit riders and taxpayers who have suffered," Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf said.