Daily Herald opinion: When it comes to mass transit plans, it's the difference between 'easy' and 'hard'
A single choice of words emphasizes the complexity of the task now confronting the General Assembly regarding the future of mass transit in Chicago.
As a joint task force of local leaders and planners prepared last week to consider sending a wide-ranging report on transportation to lawmakers, two leaders hesitated. Barrington Village President Karen Darch said she was uncomfortable with the resolution's phrasing that the report was being sent for lawmakers' "consideration of the recommendations," because she didn't agree with every proposal in the report. Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering seconded that concern. The group, made up of members from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the MPO Policy Committee, settled on replacing "recommendations" with "options" and the measure passed almost unanimously.
It is, in short, much easier to imagine merging Metra, Pace and the CTA and funneling lots of tax money from a variety of new sources than it is to actually agree to every detail.
For the moment, that's OK. As panel members emphasized, it is important first to get CMAP's Plan of Action for Regional Transit report before the eyes of lawmakers. Eventually, though, those lawmakers must sift through a range of - let's call them -- proposals and select some of them if the mass transit agencies serving millions of Chicago-area commuters a year are to avoid a COVID-induced annual debt crisis of $730 million waiting for them in 2026.
None of the ideas are easy -- either to adopt or to implement -- but the least challenging politically is probably the notion of merging the three transportation agencies under a single fund-dispersing umbrella managed by the Regional Transit Authority. The idea has been proposed many times before and leaders of the agencies themselves have tended to respond that consolidating their jobs and those of thousands of workers in distinctly different services may not be as simple or as cost-efficient as it sounds. It sounds, however, very reasonable, especially as the CMAP report proposes.
That alone will not be nearly enough, though, to address the current needs and future demands of mass transit in Chicago. To complete the picture, CMAP suggests considering fare increases tied to inflation, creating a tax on services, increases in the RTA sales tax, gas tax and vehicle registration fees, creating a parking tax in Chicago and diverting some toll revenues to cover costs of mass transportation.
Like mayors Darch and Rotering, we don't agree with all of them, either. But we do know that some mix of them -- along with disciplined cost cutting -- will be required to provide the quality and level of public transportation that the Chicago area needs and to help diminish the impact of all transportation on the climate.
So, for now, we're glad that CMAP's Plan of Action for Regional Transit is on its way to Springfield, even if the proposals are more accurately described as "options" than a "plan." It is now up to legislature to make the transition from one term to the other, and it seems likely that whatever lawmakers decide will require unpopular sacrifices or contributions at all points in the system - taxpayers, users and the agencies themselves. We simply encourage them to envision cuts and efficiencies first, and then to make sure that any new revenues focus on users of the systems, asking as little from taxpayers as is possible.