RTA may spend $5 million on transit ads, denies cronyism

Updated 5/19/2014 7:59 PM
  • The RTA board will be voting on a $5 million ad campaign.

      The RTA board will be voting on a $5 million ad campaign. MARK WELSH | Staff Photographer, October 2012

RTA board members are poised to vote Wednesday on a $5 million marketing contract with the firm that handled campaign ads for Attorney General Lisa Madigan's 2010 election.

Madigan's brother-in-law Jordan Matyas is chief of staff at the Regional Transportation Authority, but officials said there was no cronyism involved in selecting Downtown Partners Communications.

Administrators also expect the $5 million investment to pay off by increasing ridership among reverse commuters, occasional riders and older adults.

Downtown Partners, whose clients include the Illinois Lottery and Walgreens, worked for the attorney general in 2010 and "helped keep her in office," the company website states. The firm has also contributed about $5,000 to Madigan's campaign fund.

The RTA chose Downtown Partners through a competitive process, RTA acting Executive Director Leanne Redden said, adding that Matyas had "zero involvement" with the contract and that she was not aware of the firm's prior connection to Madigan.

There's a need to increase ridership among nontraditional commuters who aren't Monday-to-Friday, suburbs-to-city users, Redden said.

A good ad campaign could encourage riders to take transit on weekends, for example, she said.

"We want to help people understand the benefits of transit," she said.

A selection committee evaluated cost, creativity and strategy in nine proposals submitted by firms.

"(Downtown Partners) were very data-driven in terms of targeting the campaign," Redden said.

Downtown Partners has not worked for the attorney general since 2010, Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said.

"The attorney general has nothing to do with contracting decisions at the RTA, and she does not discuss RTA business with Mr. Matyas," Bauer said.

Former RTA executive director Steve Schlickman called the $5 million contract "huge for the RTA" and said it deserved careful consideration regardless of who the firm was.

"The challenge is -- if you're marketing for reverse commuting -- can you supply the service?" he said.

Schlickman also said it's important the RTA, Metra, Pace and CTA coordinate their marketing, noting disjointed efforts in the past.

Pace spends about $1.3 million a year on marketing, and Metra budgeted $390,000 for a ridership drive in 2013.

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