InTransit: New Pace leader envisions possible Uber collaboration

Unconventional thinking has kept Pace alive so far but the reinvention of the suburban bus agency must continue, said Rocky Donahue, Pace's new acting executive director.

"The reality is we have to be different if we're going to survive," Donahue said.

You can expect that trend to continue in 2019, said Donahue, envisioning express bus expansion onto the Tri-State Tollway and a possible partnership with ride-providers such as Uber.

Why would Pace collaborate with ride-providers that are cutting into ridership on traditional bus routes?

It's about transporting people on that elusive "last mile," said Donahue, who took over from retiring chief T.J. Ross in November.

Many suburban residents without cars live or work too far from bus stops to walk. "If only I could get to the train station from my house, I'd use public transit more," Donahue said, recalling comments from commuters.

To close that gap, Pace could offer subsidies on ride-provider trips connecting with transit, Donahue suggested in an interview Friday.

"We can't just ignore or compete with Uber and Lyft," he said.

Another goal is to repeat the success of the Bus on Shoulder express routes offered on I-55 and the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90). The program allows buses to hop on the shoulder lane during rush hour to ensure on-time performance and is growing rapidly.

The Illinois tollway is widening the Central Tri-State between Rosemont and Oak Lawn and approached Pace about building a flexible shoulder/bus lane.

Such a service could connect people with job centers in DuPage County and to the CTA in Rosemont and ultimately O'Hare, he said.

"There are so many options … that's why we're excited. But a lot is contingent on the almighty dollars. We appreciate (the tollway) putting in the pavement but we have to build the park-and-rides."

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker in December appointed Donahue to an infrastructure advisory committee.

"We need a capital bill," Donahue said. "The governor realizes infrastructure is important, and I hope we've got the momentum to get something done."

Donahue, who has a bachelor's degree in finance and a master's in public administration, started at Pace 36 years ago. His last position was as deputy executive director. He also previously worked for the Regional Transportation Authority. The suburban landscape has changed in the past decades with the relocation of employers such as McDonald's and Motorola to Chicago. "Our service area is not allowing us to be the same organization," said Donahue, 58.

Since taking over, "I've spent a lot of time talking to employees," Donahue said. "To survive we have to have fresh eyes."

But a constant is a "need to put our customers first," he said. "We need to understand what our customers need and want."

One more thing

Donahue did not receive a raise when chosen as interim executive director but continues to receive an annual salary of $210,795. Pace's board of directors is not conducting an active search for a new executive director.

Donahue described this time as a "test drive" for him and the board to make sure the job is a good fit, a spokeswoman said.

Rail board appointee

Ten years ago, an obscure federal board made a decision that forever affected Chicago and the suburbs when it agreed to the merger of the Canadian National Railway and the EJ&E Railroad, which runs in a semicircle around the region.

Now a Chicagoan and former Metra chairman will be one of the powerful members of the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads.

Martin Oberman, the bow-tied independent former Chicago alderman and attorney, helped Metra back on its feet after a patronage scandal in 2013.

Serving on the STB is far better than "doing nothing," the 73-year-old said jokingly, after recently winding up his legal practice. "I'm very much looking forward to it."

Oberman was a quick study in commuter trains and also boned up on freight railroads during his Metra tenure.

"So much of the railroad industry's fate is tied to what happens in Chicago because all of the Class 1 railroads come together here," he said. "I've been studying quite a bit since this possibility came forward. As a trial lawyer, you have to take every new case and become a detailed expert overnight."

Oberman is one of two Democrats on the board, which is appointed by the president. He underwent Senate confirmation and found it "awe-inspiring" to sit in the well of the chamber and face questioning. "In spite of what is going on in Washington, I'm very respectful of the government."

While he was a frequent passenger on Metra after joining the board, Oberman was most known for riding his bike around the city. He hopes to do so in D.C. because "it keeps me in shape."

How do you travel?

There's still time to complete the Metropolitan Agency for Planning's transportation survey and receive $50. Participants will be asked how they use roads, transit, bike lanes and sidewalks to get around, but the opportunity ends in May. For details, call (855) 981-7286 or go to

  Martin Oberman, left, shown alongside fellow Metra Director John Plante in 2013, has been named to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads. JOE LEWNARD/
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