'The stakes are ... high': 5 takeaways from CMAP's report on transforming transit

A seismic report on how to pull Metra, Pace and the CTA away from a $730 million fiscal cliff and transform public transit is headed to the General Assembly and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

So, what's next for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's 132-page document? Here are some takeaways after officials adopted the plan Wednesday at a CMAP meeting.

1. This report will go somewhere.

Many epic plans arrive in Springfield with great fanfare, then die in obscurity.

But, “the stakes are too high for us not to fully review and comprehend and act on this report,” said Democratic state Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicagoan. “We need a robust discussion – it's what our constituents have asked us for.”

Republican state Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said he doesn't “see this one getting put up on the shelf.”

“Mass transit is so important (as) an economic component in the region - we have to make sure it's done right,” he said.

However, “I believe it will be a very long, drawn-out process at the legislative level,” said DeWitte, minority spokesman on the Transportation Committee.

On timing, “I would imagine we would be holding meetings and committee hearings over the next year for people to testify as to their beliefs and positions on some of these issues,” said Villivalam, Transportation Committee chairman.

2. The governor's office is watching.

Two key Pritzker administration leaders spoke at Wednesday's meeting and stressed the need for “transit equity.” They also noted that despite not agreeing with every recommendation, they wanted to collaborate on a solution.

“We strongly believe in a vibrant transit system,” Illinois tollway Executive Director Cassaundra Rouse said.

“A robust transit system is a key ingredient in getting a more equitable region,” Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Omer Osman said.

3. The governance part looks fraught.

CMAP suggests merging Metra, Pace and the CTA into one mega-agency, or giving more authority to the Regional Transportation Authority over budgeting, fares, planning and capital projects.

The process of setting up governance for either could result in turf wars between the agencies along with Chicago and the rest of the region.

"I'm for a good, solid transit system throughout the city and suburbs," said Republican state Rep. and Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, whose district includes Pace, CTA and Metra services.

But figuring out membership on a super-agency board "is a tough one," he noted. "Put yourself in the shoes of the mayor of Chicago. Do you want to give up control of the CTA to a super agency he's not going to control?"

Likewise, "Pace is the suburban bus (agency), why would they want to give up control of that to somebody that's controlled by the city?"

Villivalam acknowledged, “We're going to have a robust conversation; it might be tough at times.”

“At the end of the day, though, we need to take a regional perspective. The average commuter is not interested in whether it's CTA, Metra, Pace, or RTA, they're interested in having a public transit option that gives them an opportunity to get from Point A to Point B."

4. Funding, funding, funding.

CMAP proposed creating a new transit revenue stream of up to $1.5 billion annually through options including: raising the gas tax or RTA sales tax; a tax on services; and using toll revenues for transit. This would offset a fare-box free fall during COVID-19, but all are considered a heavy lift.

“I think way too much time was spent on governance” during discussions, “when it really should have been about revenue and new enhanced services,” Pace Executive Director Richard Kwasneski said.

DeWitte, however, cited other revenue sources to help with the annual $730 million shortfall expected in 2026 when federal COVID-19 aid dries up.

“There has been discussion in Springfield about the potential for gaming revenues being diverted to help fund mass transit,” he said.

And “video gaming is an issue that's been on the table in Chicago for quite some time. Both mayoral candidates campaigned on the potential to bring video gaming into Chicago, which does not have it currently.”

“It could be significant dollars - upwards of $50 million to $100 million a year.”

5. There's a lot of meat in the 132-page report and some of it's been overshadowed.

For starters, CMAP proposes one universal fare system with discounts for low-income riders as well as youths and students.

The report also recommends a “regional rail system,” that goes beyond traditional commuting. Regional rail could offer faster, more frequent trips within Chicago, between suburbs, or service that connects counties from Will to Lake.

What else? Planners favor expanding Metra train service to O'Hare International Airport. Another idea is additional infill stations on the CTA and Metra, such as the Peterson Ridge stop on the UP North Line in Chicago.

A new vision for transit could benefit the suburbs, said Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, who wants more Pace express routes.

The Chicago region “is the leader in so many areas. We should be the leader in transportation but we're not there yet,” she said.

Got an opinion on the CMAP report or better transit? Drop an email to

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