George Ranney dishes on the RTA, Route 53 and 15 years in the fray
Shaking up the RTA. Reforms to the juvenile justice system. Fixing Chicago's freight bottleneck. An $8 billion transportation program in 2008.
The consummate behind-the-scenes players at Metropolis Strategies, including CEO George Ranney, can claim credit for many projects that make the region tick.
May marked the end of the not-for-profit civic and planning organization's mission after 15 years. I sat down with Ranney to talk about the past and how Metropolis' influence might affect the future -- including a possible consolidation of transit agencies and extension of Route 53.
The Harvard-educated Libertyville native and attorney was an Inland Steel executive and developed Prairie Crossing in Grayslake. I best know Ranney for causing me to splutter my coffee when he remarked in 2011 that the Regional Transportation Authority was "a disgrace" for failing to lead.
Ranney is unrepentant, saying that despite some good intentions, no one pays attention to the RTA, which oversees Metra, Pace and the CTA. In March, Ranney and the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, which he co-chaired, recommended the state merge the three transit agencies and propel the RTA into oblivion.
Chief among his beefs is that Metra, Pace and the CTA fight over money every year, using antiquated formulas for dividing tax revenue.
"Transit by definition does not succeed unless it's coordinated. They haven't been able to bring people together to come up with a plan for spending money other than the same formulas (in place) since 1983 and that's nuts," Ranney said.
"If people trusted the RTA, it could generate more resources in Washington but they don't."
Noting he takes the same train from Libertyville that his father took, Ranney added that "nowhere else in the world do they have complacency about exactly the same level of service."
As for the future of RTA reform, Ranney, who worked for several Illinois governors, thinks that will happen after the November state and February Chicago elections.
With forces such as the city of Chicago pushing for the status quo, "the way to go forward is having leadership come from suburban officials like DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle," Ranney said. He noted that support from Cronin, Preckwinkle and Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor for a single, integrated transit agency was a "breakthrough," that emboldened the task force.
Ranney currently co-chairs an Illinois tollway advisory group that's trying to figure a way to pay for extending Route 53 into Lake County. The project, an environmentally sensitive parkway, is hamstrung by an up to $2.87 billion gap toll revenues won't cover.
For success, local "mayors and Lake County have to participate -- they need to put in dollars," he said. "This road ... is solving a lot of local problems. Lake County hasn't spent as much money in the past on roads as others have and it's time for Lake County to understand and participate."
By the same token, it's essential for the road to include components such as lowered grades, berms and treatment for stormwater runoff that critics consider unnecessary, he explained.
Those aren't frivolous add-ons, Ranney said. "Those are essential elements of a well-designed modern road. It relates to quality of life."
One way to pay involves value capture -- establishing special taxing areas that assume that development like a new road benefits landowners by growth in sales, rents or property values, he said.
"I'm a developer," Ranney said. "I think developers need to pay more for the value that is generated (by the project). Value capture makes sense. That is something that the real estate community isn't too keen on -- but let's get real. If you use public dollars to generate private wealth, you can darn well pay for it."
On Ranney's wish list for the next decade: "I would love see more investment in transit -- that's key -- that's the only way to deal with traffic congestion."
One more thing
Metropolis' successes stem from a narrow focus on housing, transportation, education and criminal justice, Ranney said.
Metropolis executives worked behind the scenes on: the creation of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; establishing a stand-alone state Department of Juvenile Justice; improvements to early childhood education, and CREATE -- a collaboration between government and railroads to build bridges and other infrastructure to move freight trains faster.
The team of senior executives, the majority of whom were 60- and 70-somethings who took no salary, had a gravitas that opened doors in Springfield and in boardrooms. People listened because "we weren't out there blustering," Ranney said.
Thanks for the emails on O'Hare noise. We'll get more of those in soon but here's a quick take from John Denney, who reports that south Elk Grove Village is "also blasted with the noise and frequency of the new runway. Nowhere to escape at this time." Hang in there, John. And keep sending the emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suburban drivers headed to Chicago should brace themselves for the demolition of the westbound Ohio/Ontario Street Bridge to the eastbound Kennedy Expressway. Work starts June 13. For more information and detours, go to http://www.dot.il.gov/KennedyatOhio/detour.html.
Get ready for the Bike Commuter Challenge June 13 to 20 where participants compete in teams to see which workplace is the bikiest. It's not just about mileage, it's about participating, says the Active Transportation Alliance, the event organizer. To learn more, go to http://bikecommuterchallenge.org/.
Ventra changes in effectAnother Ventra milestone is here. CTA and Pace riders can no longer use Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus products or reload money onto magnetic stripe fare cards. The two agencies will fully transition to the new fare system, Ventra, July 1. While 92 percent of CTA rides are taken with Ventra, Pace is only at 62 percent participation. To learn more, go to https://www.ventrachicago.com/.