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.