More State Control Over Chicagoland Transit Is a Bad Idea

Governor Quinn and Mayor Emanuel Unveil.CTA’s New Red Line South
IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider’s office would get more control over Chicagoland transit in Governor Quinn’s transit task force recommendations. Photo: IDOT

On Tuesday, the Northeastern Public Transit Task Force, created after former Metra CEO Alex Clifford’s abrupt resignation and the ensuing severance package scandal last summer, issued four different options for restructuring regional transit governance [PDF]. While there’s a lot of variation among the four options, they would all hand more power to the governor. This is the wrong direction to take.

The task force recommended that in any option, the Illinois governor should have more transit board appointments because the state provides a “significant portion of transit operating and capital funding.” But the governor already has too much say over regional transit.

The governor currently exerts control through the Illinois DOT (through which funding passes), appointments to Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning committees that also choose which projects to fund, and the appointment of three Chicago Transit Authority board members. Will Chicago transit be better off if we hand over more power to the governor and IDOT?

Stephen Smith wrote in Next City about the pitfalls of New York’s governor-controlled MTA: “Concentrating power over regional transit in the hands of the governor — even if that region happens to be a state’s main economic engine — has not turned out well for New York, and it’s unclear why it would work any better for Chicago.” Just because the MTA is a state agency does not mean that the governor has become accountable for its performance:

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo does involve himself in MTA affairs, it’s either to take away money or claim credit for projects that were already underway before he came along. On the most pressing MTA issues — its cripplingly high costs or its mound of expired labor contracts — the governor disengages completely.

Two of the four options would eliminate the RTA and put Chicagoland transit under greater IDOT control: one by transferring oversight and federal and state funding decisions to IDOT while retaining the three service boards, the other by making IDOT fully “responsible for coordinating the regional transit system,” wresting control of the RTA board from the City of Chicago’s Mayor, Cook County commissioners, and surrounding counties’ boards — which is clearly the worst-case scenario.

Putting control of Chicagoland transit in the state’s hands would exacerbate existing problems. The state and IDOT are already showering money on boondoggles like the Illiana Tollway and IL-53 extension over Chicago’s objections. These two options would further entrench IDOT’s ability to allocate resources.

This isn’t to say that an integrated agency like the New York MTA and San Francisco MTA, which coordinate several different but interconnected types of transportation infrastructure and services, is a bad idea. For one thing, those two agencies achieve greater efficiency in their transportation networks by using revenues to cross-subsidize transit: NY’s MTA from tolled highways and SF’s MTA from parking revenues.

One of the task force’s proposal does call for such an agency without turning it into a creature of IDOT. The task force wrote, in support of an integrated transit agency, that “cohesive regional organization leads to more investment.” They highlighted that places around the country with “consolidated systems” or “strong regional oversight” invest $1,000 more per resident on capital projects than Chicagoland. An integrated agency may also provide more efficiencies, but regardless of how its structured it should be controlled locally. We can’t let this restructuring turn into a power grab by the state.

Whichever reorganization style the governor accepts and the state legislature passes, the fact remains that improving service – purportedly the top guiding principle of the task force’s Governance Working Group – hinges on devoting more funds to CTA, Metra, and Pace.

Starving the service boards of funding means they cannot provide service at anywhere near the levels the region needs to reduce household transportation expenses, increase access to jobs, and improve the competitiveness of the regional economy.

Last month, the task force’s Finance Working Group recommended stopping the use of existing funding allocation formulas in favor of performance-based, competitive funding methods while encouraging public-private partnerships, among other ideas [PDF]. But the report was actually very weak in terms of identifying new funding sources, saying only to “consider new revenues.”

The failure of our state legislators and regional leaders to increase funding for transit is a major factor in the poor public perception of the agencies, making them look mismanaged or incompetent. Who wants to give a mismanaged agency funding? Why can’t they expand service like agencies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City?

Those regions all have levels of transit investment that leave Chicago behind.

  • what_eva

    A key part of this is the fact that any change has to get through the legislature. Even though it would be a short term decision, I’m not sure Mike Madigan just hands additional power of this sort over to Quinn. And god forbid Rauner wins.

  • ReverseCommuter

    I agree that IDOT isn’t the best home for transit agency leadership, but I really do think combining the service boards would be a great step towards crafting a real regional transit network.

    Steps could be taken to ensure local control with oversight from the governor to prevent parochial squabbling. Residency requirements and Senate approval are two options that could help to accomplish those goals. The governor would work with legislators (many of whom represent the city AND suburbs) to find qualified and acceptable leaders.

    The governor is the person elected by the entire region and as it is, already controls a chunk of the various board appointments. I don’t think the historical precedents of mayoral CTA control or suburban Metra control have worked out well at all and a new path is needed.

    As far as revenue streams are concerned, I don’t disagree more money is needed. Since we don’t have bridges to toll (and we can’t toll the Kennedy, Stevenson, or Ryan freeways) I’d say a gas tax would likely be the only new revenue

  • ReverseCommuter

    Expanding the sales tax base would help as well, and is actually probably more likely than upping the gas tax.

  • Right. Presuming Governor Quinn does something with these recommendations, and is governor long enough to do that something, he would draft the legislation and submit it to the legislature.

  • The Governance Working Group highlighted how the city vs. suburbs squabbling (which is in the design of the funding and governance structures) prevents good transit.

  • I like the idea of the RTA. I just think it suffers from the same problems that plague many parts of IL government. People who aren’t qualified for a position where they control transit end up getting nice, secure positions while our transportation system languishes. But I wouldn’t want to give more control to the governor, and definitely not IDOT.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I’m of two minds about combining the service boards. That is, I think ultimately it needs to be done, but I also think this could turn out to be another case of “careful what you wish for.” Would a combined administration eliminate the old suburban versus city dynamic? Or would it just leave the city without an effective advocate and allow resources to be easily and smoothly siphoned out of the city and into the burbs?

    And as for putting the whole thing under IDOT, well, that seems logical on the face of it–if you haven’t been paying attention to how transportation actually plays out in Illinois. IDOT as it is now, and I see no reason to think it’ll change, has shown no interest in rebalancing the ecology of transportation in Illinois, and absolutely no interest in public transit. It should be called IDOHA, the Illinois Department of Highways and Airports. (Or, as I’ve advocated before, it should just put that missing I in the middle of its acronym.)

  • While i think it’s ridiculous we vote for board members of the MWRD, I think it’s even more ridiculous that we vote for board members of the MWRD while NOT voting for members of the transit boards. I think some sense of accountability would probably be nice given the fairly direct service relationship the transit systems have with the populace. Instead, like most boards and commissions in Illinois, it’s a grazing area for unqualified, often corrupt political appointees. Moving it to the governor’s control just changes the group of hacks that will sit on the board.

  • david vartanoff

    Some correctives/details. First SF’s MTA is nothing more than the Muni Railway rebranded. It has no jurisdiction over BART (the subway/elevated lines), and only marginal influence over Caltrain (the Metra analog). FWIW BART and AC Transit (the East Bay bus agency) each have elected boards. Regrettably this has not prevented huge waste, dumb route decisions poor fleet purchases or rider hostile lack of service and fare coordination between modes.
    Having lived under CTA NYMTA and in the SF Bay Area, I am agnostic about whether elective (a couple of BART directors have been prosecuted for financial shanigans) or appointive transit boards (subject to corrupt politicians and expected to distribute patronage) have any advantages for us the rider/taxpayers. Obviously elected usually trumps appointed as a democratic process, but we have many examples of voter approved discrimination so…

  • Nathanael

    Bluntly, I’d say put the whole thing under city administration. The burbs can merge with Chicago if they wanna.

  • Nathanael

    (I know this won’t happen in my lifetime.)

    The failure to provide decent in-city Metra service is the nastiest side-effect of the crazy separation of service boards.

  • I ride the CTA, Metra, and PACE every single day. According to the Report, it recommends the transit system to stop using historical formulas for capital. That’s because they are still using outdated marketing strategies to increase revenue. So, the state stepped in to fill in those missing dollars. From 2010 to 2012, the state provided grant funding to help stabilize the budget. The RTA’s solution is to increase fares to $3.00(single ride Ventra cards). Which only causes ridership to decrease, and customers to look for alternative modes if travel such as bike/car rental and sharing. The RTA should be investing time and energy in selling advertisements to local businesses, instead of focusing on national brands. The three agencies should plan together, and collaborate on projects which focus on improve the routes, infrastructure, and rider experience. Many people avoid RTA due to safety issues. They should consider subcontracting with other providers of transportation such as charter bus companies to provide service on streets which lack sufficient bus routes.

  • Metra and the City are just starting a new Study on how to improve in-city ridership, and bring benefits to local communities along their routes: http://chicagometratypologies.com/

    I will be attending some of those meetings to distribute information and literature about the CTA Gray Line Project: http://bit.ly/GrayLineInfo

    Check this Chicago Tribune article for further comments: http://bit.ly/1lD98nE

  • Are you referring to board members of the agencies or actual staff that are unqualified for their positions? I suspect having four boards with their own wells of political power has done much to stymie improvements in the regional holistic approach to transit in Chicago.

  • Ryan Wallace

    I still believe the best idea is to roll RTA into CMAP with a new single board.

  • I’m not so sure. CMAP does a lot of things outside of transportation planning. If it were forced to take on the actual provision of transit services, I think other areas of CMAP’s work plan would likely suffer. Just take a look at all of the non-transportation issues covered in Go To 2040 for an idea.

  • Fbfree

    What about only merging Metra and the CTA? Pace and CTA tend to get along well and have separate mandates. It’s the continuing conflict between the number of rail corridors we have in the city and Metra’s inability to use them efficiently, and CTA/Metra not sharing fares that impedes regional mobility.

  • Coolebra

    After thoughtful deliberation, I find that, yes, we should place the fox in charge of the hen house.

    While we are at it, lets create more competition for scarce transit funding by encouraging a proliferation of local transit agencies across the region. That concept has worked quite well with the number of taxing authorities in the region – less is not more, dang it, MORE is more . . . even when they are battling for less.

    Sure, a report should include evaluation of all reasonable alternatives; however, it should eliminate the unreasonable ones before advancing the recommendations.

  • Coolebra

    How would promoting more local transit agencies reduce the level of squabbling and improved transit?

  • cjlane

    MWRD has independent authority to levy taxes on property, thus elected. RTA and the subs do not.

  • cjlane

    Steven:

    ‘[the guv] would draft the legislation and submit it to the legislature’

    I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. And I don’t mean “the governor vs his staff doing the actual drafting”.

  • I understand but, and i don’t mean this derisively, who cares? I periodically interact with MWRD at a professional capacity, so i consider myself reasonably well informed regarding stormwater management issues. Despite this, I have no idea what criteria i’m supposed to be using to elect MWRD members. If I can’t figure out how to vote for these people, then what hope does someone not in the building, civil, or planning profession have? My greater point, not particularly appropriate to this thread is that we vote for too many elected officials. However, something like a unified transit board, millions of people have informed opinions (even if only by their own experience) as to how the transportation system is performing.

    I don’t see any reason why the MWRD can’t be put under some other agency’s authority (like the county) and the CTA/Pace/Metra put together as its own.

  • Coolebra

    IDOT and the State have failed to adequately support NEIL transit. Why, then, should they be given more authority to determine or guide its fate?

    To finish the job they started, letting it fade into irrelevance through planned decay while continuing to incrementally expand what is already the most complete road network on the planet, all the while promising transit in the projects they design, but failing to deliver it?

    Yes, we do need improved and expanded transit. That is clear.

    Yes, we do need to establish transit priorities and make the investments necessary to realize them. We can not benefit from a vision that is not funded.

    Yes, we do need to control costs to gain maximum benefit from the funds we have available. We should do the best with what we have.

    Yes, operating agencies do need to work more closely with one another instead of in virtual silos with associated resource battles. We need a team approach.

    Yes, that bears repeating: We need a team approach. Putting together a team requires more than structure – it requires vision, ability, motivation, and resources. A structural change means very little if it isn’t undertaken in a manner that creates a winning team.

    The funny thing is one of the last major structural changes was when CMAP was created. CMAP, as a new structure, was created to address some of the same issues that the present restructuring is supposed to solve. The highway branch of regional planning – CATS – was supposed to begin working more effectively with the land use branch of regional planning – NIPC – and we were supposed to begin seeing transportation investment planning linked to objectives associated with land use, the built and natural environment, and economic outcomes.

    Is that what we got? Nope.

    Well, we did finally get an award-winning regional comprehensive plan (GoTo 2040) that walked the walk in many ways; however, they key element – the major capital investment plan – remained a 50s era highway construction and expansion plan. GoTo 2040 may have talked the talk in some respects, but it didn’t walk the walk. It failed to even crawl.

    IDOT hijacked GoTo 2040 after a lot of great work by CMAP staff.

    One bad project after another has been spawned from GoTo 2040, with the Illiana just the latest in a string of absurd investments, abject failures, and broken IDOT commitments.

    History repeats itself – especially when we don’t learn from our previous mistakes.

    Don’t give the fox the keys to the hen-house. Let IDOT do what their engineers are good at – build and maintain roads.They know nothing of transit and are ill-prepared to handle the important responsibility.

    Fix NEIL transit through team-building and making the funding commitments necessary to make the team successful, even if it means leaving IDOT with less to tinker with.

    We need improved and expanded transit in NEIL and less IDOT control.

  • I prefer CMAP stick to its role as determining what projects are and aren’t in line with the GO TO 2040 regional plan of which they’re stewards. And its role in helping municipalities develop their own plans and projects to guide development there.

  • You’re right. I believe the governor can only introduce the executive budget to the legislature. I’ve corrected my comment.

  • I referenced SF MTA because it’s more than the Muni Railway rebranded. It’s an integrated agency that combines the department of transportation, the parking operator (which the Finance department does in Chicago), the taxi and limousine commission (which the Business Affairs and Consumer Protection handles in Chicago), local rapid transit, and buses. It’s a single agency that handles everything on the streets (like bike lanes and taxi medallions) and transit.

  • mattfromchicago

    I think a better plan would be to merge Pace and Metra since their riders are majority suburban. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve had to venture out into the burbs and just been perplexed at the insane amount of time I’ve had to waste waiting for the two of them to sync up their schedules and routes. It’s madness.

    CTA covers the city. Metra/Pace covers the burbs. Allow them to operate as transit agencies only but maybe let some other, regional board or whatever handle the actual planning and fundraising for them. That should reduce a lot of redundancy and make the systems more rider-friendly.

  • cjlane

    “Despite this, I have no idea what criteria i’m supposed to be using to elect MWRD members.”

    Um, you vote for de somebody who somebody sent. It is Chicago after all. Me, I take the Dem Party hand card and make sure I vote against all of ’em (yes, I’m a registered D).

    “I don’t see any reason why the MWRD can’t be put under some other agency’s authority (like the county)”

    1. Of course it *could*, but IL is the land of many boards–we have something like 2x as many governments per person than any other state.

    2. Can’t just be the County, as it has multi-county jurisdiction. I’d be all for a regional government, of which MWRD and Transit were just agencies, but I think I’m in the minority of the minority there.

  • The CTA covers Cook County, and has service in 35 municipalities.

    The Governance Working Group’s report touched on the city vs. suburbs structure we have now:

    “The 2008 reform did not achieve the intended result of creating an integrated regional transit system due to a structure, history, and culture that inhibits regional collaboration.”

    “Board appointments correspond to the political geography of the region – board members are aligned with the City of Chicago and the CTA or the suburbs and Metra.

    As a result, while the mission of the RTA Board is to serve the interest of the region, its culture is to serve the particular interest of the individual appointing authorities and their favored Service Board.”

  • Back in school I took a sustainability/environment class at the UIC urban planning college. It was the only class I took on these topics. I learned a lot about stormwater management in a short time…I became greatly interested because of how streets and parking lots contribute to our stormwater (mis)management. Anyway, some MWRD board positions were up and I wrote a blog post endorsing some folks.

    I’d never met the people I endorsed but I looked at their credentials to see how they aligned with what I thought were good ideas for future stormwater management.

    http://www.stevencanplan.com/2010/my-endorsements-for-metropolitan-water-reclamation-district/

  • I’d definitely support #2. Illinois is way too parochial. Each little board, commission, or authority ends up being someone’s kingdom.

  • I totally hear ya, i’m just saying that at some point, there’s no reason for certain things to be political positions. Stormwater management, as you allude to, is incredible important. But if the sole reason to have it be an elected position is because it levies taxes, then it seems a bit absurd. Being a political position only opens it up to easier manipulation by outside groups (Kind of like what happens with the election of judges) or vulnerable to someone who just wants to gut the agency to lower tax bills.

  • david vartanoff

    @ Steven. “local rapid transit”??? No Muni rider I know would call ANY of its service “rapid”.

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