Emanuel, CTA President Come Out Against Unified Regional Transit Agency

Elevator shaft at LaSalle Street Station
The intermodal connection the Chicago Department of Transportation added to the LaSalle Metra station in 2011 is one of the rare inter-agency improvements made in the last 5 years.

The transit task force Governor Pat Quinn convened last year after the Metra governance scandal continues to discuss the merits of a single transit authority to replace the Regional Transportation Authority and absorb Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace. Count Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTA President Forrest Claypool among the opponents of that idea.

Emanuel and Claypool came out strongly against the proposal because they believe the CTA would become less accountable to Chicagoans. Emanuel spokesperson Sarah Hamilton told the Sun-Times:

Chicagoans demand a public transportation framework that is accountable to riders and taxpayers, which is what we have at the CTA. The mayor is not interested in a solution that replaces one unaccountable bureaucracy with another.

Hamilton’s right that Chicagoans – and residents of the 35 other municipalities the CTA serves – deserve accountable transit agencies. And under Emanuel, the CTA has had a lot of wins, including new stations, new buses, and a successful Red Line South revamp.

But the CTA isn’t the only organization that’s part of the discussion. Pace and Metra — and all the riders who depend on their services — also need to be considered. These riders don’t care who is providing the bus from home to work, whether it’s Pace or CTA, or whether the Chicago mayor is calling the shots or not.

What matters is the rider. Would a regional transit agency serve the region’s transit riders better than the status quo? It certainly could help address some of the problems that are plaguing Chicagoland transit.

Right now, the region’s transit agencies basically compete for riders. Different agencies run similar routes that serve the same trips, and all three agencies have their own marketing departments, appealing to the same pool of potential customers. The agencies don’t make much effort to integrate fares, other than some extremely limited inter-agency transfers.

And instead of making a collective case to the state legislature for funding, each service board is, in effect, represented separately by various state legislators whose constituencies are easily divided along “agency lines.” A unified agency could be structured to allocate funding by performance instead of by geography: The task force recommends that any distribution of funds by formula incorporate performance measures.

Ventra and fare integration is another area where regional coordination could help. The state legislature mandated a universal fare system by 2015, but CTA started down the Ventra path alone, without the RTA’s involvement. Pace later jumped on board, but Metra only plans to use Ventra as a medium to purchase tickets and not act as the ticket itself. Metra also plans to launch a service that allows riders to show a ticket on their smartphones.

It makes sense that City Hall doesn’t want to cede authority to the state, especially given the state’s abysmal recent record on transportation issues. But Stephen Schlickman, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center and the previous RTA executive director, told the Sun-Times that Chicago’s interests could still be represented in a single agency, if it’s structured right:

Chicago’s mayor might lose control of the CTA under it, he wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to the task force [PDF], but an RTA-like requirement of “supermajority” votes could allow Chicago members appointed by the mayor to protect Chicago’s interests.

Right now, Schlickman said, “We have 47 board members, four boards, and everyone is pointing fingers at each other as to who is accountable.'”

Opposing a regional transit agency may be a smart opening position for the upcoming debate in the state legislature over the structure of Chicago transit governance, but City Hall should be flexible. Hopefully Emanuel is open to the benefits that a smartly-structured unified transit agency can bring to riders.

  • cjlane

    Of course they do. This is Illinois–anytime a suggestion is made that would reduce a politicians fiefdom, that politician is going to say its a bad idea.

  • As much as what you say is true, i just don’t like the idea of giving the suburbs and state another way to leach money off of the city. They do enough of it already. i.e. They may be corrupt officials but at least they’re my corrupt officials.

  • Legally speaking the CTA exists by authority of the state legislature. The mayors have usurped control and said “accountability belongs to me”.

  • Thanks for the clarification. Although, i still think it kind of supports my point that at least the mayor and the 4 CTA board members he appoints are focused on the city. Look at what happened with the Illiana vote. Metra and Pace voted for it. What happens when it comes down to something like the CTA’s operating budget and you have a governor desperate to win collar county voters? If there’s a suburban constituency that acts as a swing vote, that’s who’s getting the money, not CTA.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Of course, as Stephen Schlickman is paraphrased as saying, “Chicago’s interests *could* still be represented in a single agency, if it’s structured right.” The question is, why in the world would we expect it to be structured right?

    Jeff Wood in The Overhead Wire (quoted in a Streetsblog Network post currently linked at right, “Are Regional Transit Agencies Too Beholden to the Suburbs?”) aptly states the case:

    “These massive regional transit agencies are typically stacked with
    suburban board members that don’t always have the core cities’ needs at
    heart. They are usually concocting schemes to extract money or service
    in some form or fashion from the more transit willing neighborhoods in
    the region in order to have some sort of suburb to city dream bus or
    commuter rail line that costs a lot, but really doesn’t move the needle
    on changing mobility in a meaningful way. Either that or they have to
    have an election that includes heavy transit opposition precincts that
    sink ballot initiatives that pass in the city proper.

    “… Right or wrong, the [Cincinnati] city streetcar movement is a function of the neglect that center cities feel when it comes to regional transit priorities.
    The core might be the economic engine for the region, but the fiscal
    extraction continues..”

    When I hear talk of a single transit board with proportional representation of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the collar counties, here’s what I picture: one representative for Chicago, one for suburban Cook, and ten for the collar counties, since after all there are five of them and only one Cook County. That’s the kind of proportional representation we’d get. I’m with Emanuel and Claypool on this one.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I’d just add that we’re already seeing that. Pat Quinn is a Democrat, lives in Chicago when not in Springfield, and I’d say all in all is the closest we’re ever likely to come to a governor sympathetic to the city’s interests. But he supports both Illiana and the Peotone airport. I have no doubt he’s smart enough to recognize both for the boondoggles they are, but he wants those south suburban and exurban votes. What chance will the city have when the transit board is appointed by the inevitable future Republican governor from the collar counties?

  • Urban Transportation Center ED

    The CTA is getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the suburban and downstate tax payers. Chicago taxpayers by any accounting are not subsidizing the the other transit services Pace and Metra.

  • John L

    Can you please provide a link for that?
    Although the CTA does get money from the 6 county area I’m not aware of any downstate sources of money.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Payback. Suburbanites swarm our city streets, and we rarely swarm theirs. We pay for the streets they use, so they pay for our trains. Seems fair.

  • JacobEPeters

    read Senator Biss’s proposal for how to split up a regional transit agency so that its boards are organized around representing the taxpayers who use the different systems. This would mean better representation of Chicagoans who currently use (or could use) Metra and Pace to get to their jobs.

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CGIQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fdanielbiss.com%2Ftransportation.pdf&ei=hT0pU7r9M8n-qAGW7IGYDQ&usg=AFQjCNGFbjkv-9UbscbNBFrxr14yjV653w&sig2=PXKx_Q5ub9RHhi-qcWE6og&bvm=bv.62922401,d.aWM

  • Anne A

    Not a bad proposal. Folks, check it out.

  • cjlane

    “What happens when it comes down to something like the CTA’s operating budget and you have a governor desperate to win collar county voters?”

    Well, that’s why the Guv-appointed board is a joke, that no one in the region should support.

    However, having a single, elected, board is different–I totally get your objection, and don’t exactly disagree, but it’s not a “our crooks” v “the guv’s crooks” choice–there is an in between, which would *still* suffer from the ‘run by IL politicians’ problem.

  • See page 22 of the RTA’s 2014 Budget Book. When discussing issues of transit finance, this is the place to go.

    http://www.rtachicago.com/images/stories/2014%20Budget%20Book.pdf

    Note that “downstate sources of money” is really statewide funding. It comes from the Public Transportation Fund, which is a state fund that matches RTA sales tax and real estate transfer taxes revenues and distributes these funds by formula. It comprises 12.4% of the RTA system’s 2014 revenues.

  • I think Biss’ proposal is one of the most thought out proposals out there to ensure regional transit.

  • Anne A

    Looks like there’s resistance from RTA, too. Surprise, surprise. ;)

  • neroden

    The RTA was supposed to unify all this back when it was created.

    It obviously failed.

    The root problems here which need to be fixed:
    (1) Metra ignores its patrons within the City of Chicago almost completely, and also its patrons within Cook County to a lesser extent
    (2) Metra has no fare integration with CTA or Pace
    (3) Metra is operated in an archaic and inefficient manner
    (4) The CTA is consistently underfunded
    (5) The RTA is a layer of bureaucracy which seems unable to do more than produce a map. (The map is useful, don’t get me wrong.)
    (6) CTA buses compete with Metra
    (7) Pace competes with CTA buses
    (8) Pace competes with Metra
    (9) All the agencies seem to have unusually large opportunities for corruption and simple incompetence.

    There’s gotta be some way of fixing this mess. It was NOT fixed in NY City, where Metro-North and LIRR still fight over turf, the LIRR refuses to serve the patrons within New York City, and the NYC Subway is still underfunded.

  • neroden

    Wow. This is a genuinely good plan. Makes too much sense to pass in the Illinois Legislature?

  • I didn’t read it as outright resistance. Rather the RTA Chairman (who is stepping down this summer) thinks its politically dead. Honestly, I do too. The governor is unlikely to make any changes to the transit agencies (which require General Assembly legislation) before the election.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Thanks, this does looks like a well-thought-out proposal that might accomplish both integration of service and fair representation. Which unfortunately means, as neroden suggested, that it has no chance even to be considered.

  • You must have written the task force’s final report because all of these points are mentioned in it! :)

    The final report seems to give too much credit to the NYC MTA way of doing things because it doesn’t acknowledge the LIRR MNR Subway as three separate entities. However, it points out that NYC transit spends three times as much per passenger as does Chicago transit which they link to NYC’s much greater transit ridership growth.

  • Randy Baxley

    This is indeed one huge mess. Pace “service” to the differently abled is also a hobble to those who must use it.

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