A Clearer, More Concise Regional Transit Proposal From Senator Biss

Daniel Biss's new RTA board makeup proposal
Biss’s unified RTA proposal has 19 members, all appointed by the governor with approval from 10 of 13 members of a regional transit council with locally appointed members.

At least one Illinois legislator supports a unified transit agency, even though RTA board chairman John Gates and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have declared their opposition.

Senator Daniel Biss (D-9th, Evanston, Glenview) published a proposal [PDF] back in November, saying “the CTA, Metra, and Pace should combine into a single new Regional Transit Authority.” That was months before Governor Quinn’s transit task force issued a similar recommendation, due to be released in final form next week.

Biss’s proposal calls for a streamlined RTA, with gubernatorial appointees who would need to be vetted by representatives from Chicago and its suburbs. While it leaves a few key questions unanswered — namely, how long people would serve on the new agency’s board, and how they could be removed from office — the plan is a solid attempt at reforming regional transit governance without turning the new agency into the governor’s plaything.

In the proposal, a new RTA with a 19-member board would replace the existing RTA board, three service boards, and their combined 47 members. The governor would appoint every board member, with the supermajority approval of a new Regional Transit Council — made up of members appointed by the Chicago mayor, suburban Cook County commissioners, and board presidents from the collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Will, McHenry, and Lake).

The new RTA board would comprise five representatives from Chicago, five from suburban Cook County, five from the collar counties, and one representative from Chicago’s Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. New to Chicagoland transit boards would be three non-voting positions: a Citizens’ Advisory Board member, a Metra operating railroads rep, and an RTA union rep.

While the task force recommended a unified transit agency with three service divisions, Biss outlines four: rapid transit (the ‘L’), bus (both CTA and Pace services), paratransit (which Pace operates), and commuter rail (Metra). The RTA executive director would hire a manager for each transit division, to be approved by the board, and managers could only serve a maximum of two six-year terms. The RTA executive director could relieve division managers with board approval. It seems that Biss is creating a way to hire and fire that would have avoided the scandal surrounding the resignation of Alex Clifford, former Metra CEO. Each service division would have a board committee to recommend approval of its budget.

Biss recognizes the importance of working together for cohesive service planning and budgeting by involving the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the region’s federally-mandated planning organization, to help staff the fifth committee:

It makes sense to maintain a separation between the management of day-to-day operations of the different modes of transit, which is why each division should have its own committee. However, when it comes to long-term planning and prioritizing capital investments, it is absolutely crucial for the systems to be working strategically in concert. Therefore, a single capital budget committee should be responsible for approving each division’s annual capital budget.

Train traffic
Combining rail modes into a single division could help Metra run more like rapid transit than freight train service. Photo: Jennifer Davis

The Biss proposal still leaves rail transit split between two silos, based on which railroad owned which tracks over a century ago. The task force’s recommendations also keep transit services aligned by the current agencies, rather than by mode.

Chicagoland transit has a continuum of services: the Loop has a lot of ‘L’ stops and frequent service, as does the Metra Electric, while Metra’s Heritage Corridor has few stops and infrequent service. Most of the rail transit system falls somewhere in between.

A single rail service division could take what are now called “commuter rail” services, like the Metra Electric, and give them higher frequencies appropriate to providing good access to job centers that have developed in the suburbs. Nothing would prevent a rail division from continuing to contract commuter rail operations to the freight railroads, but setting up a commuter rail-only division would likely ensure that Metra service continue as-is.

Other than the question of term lengths and how board members can be removed from office, Biss’s proposal considers nearly everything in a transition from “RTA+3” to plain RTA. He describes how the RTA’s administrative funding share would increase, and how funds now going to CTA, Metra, and Pace would be divvied among the new service divisions.

Biss doesn’t stop at reorganizing the RTA in his proposal, though. He recognizes the mutual relationship of land use planning and private development in providing transit, where transit is the start of a positive feedback loop that results in greater economic activity.

Transit, working “hand in glove with public and private developers, land use policy, and economic activity… creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ where more development near transit nodes results in increased ridership.” Consequently, increased ridership “bolsters the system’s fiscal position and supports businesses near transit nodes.” That leads to increased property values “in the transit shed,” Biss says, and that stable tax base results in higher government revenues from which to reinvest in transit.

Additionally, Biss says any new state enterprise zones — places where tax breaks are used to “stimulate growth in economically depressed areas” — should be located near, and plan around, existing public infrastructure like transit. The Illinois Department of Transportation has a similar program that helps “businesses modernize state infrastructure serving their location,” but it should be amended to “include elements of complete streets policies [that] would help incentivize businesses to develop walkable sites that are located near transit.”

IDOT’s involvement in regional planning comes into play as well. CMAP used to be funded by a “Comprehensive Regional Planning Fund” that was created by the state legislature but eliminated in 2010. IDOT now funds CMAP directly, but Biss calls for a new, dedicated fund to avoid leaving “CMAP too susceptible to IDOT’s short-term pressures,” as it has sometimes proven to be.

Biss’s proposal claims that its structure “reflects the geographic priorities – and, yes, tensions – that currently dominate our transit discussions,” ensuring that “these debates coexist with a unified planning process and a streamlined administration.” Unlike the task force’s draft proposals that could give the governor more power, the Biss proposal includes the level of detail that a thoughtful review of this subject requires. It’s both optimistic that transit can flourish in Chicagoland, and confidently suggests a new structure that respects existing boundaries without being beholden to them.

  • JacobEPeters

    “setting up a commuter rail-only division would likely ensure that Metra service continue as-is”

    That could be argued, but the difference is that board members of the Metra committee would also serve on the CTA, Bus, or Paratransit committee. Which would likely mean that these members would see the parallels in service, and call for closer coordination of services at least. Because these board members would also come from varying parts of the region, heavy electric rail could be initiated in denser suburban areas, or commuter rail frequency could be increased where it serves Chicago populations. By including all parts of the region in planning all parts of regional transit, the distinction between heavy rail and commuter rail would be based on whether they share tracks with freight service or not.

  • I really don’t think Metra has any idea what a game-changer even twice- or thrice-hourly service (let’s say, from 5AM-11PM 7 days a week to start) would have on their ridership. Once people realized they could RELY on it as a way to get places, instead of having to structure their entire lives around making The One True Train, modeshare would go through the roof.

    Well, through the roof compared to where it is NOW, anyhow. And presumably running service three times an hour will be six times more expensive (about) than running them every two hours.

  • Jim Mitchell

    As one who was once tied to that schedule, including the late night one-an-hour trains, hear-hear! When I was in law school (evening classes), I lived in Buffalo Grove. I got out of class at 8:30, which meant I *just missed* the 8:35 train. I then had to wait around for a 9:35 train to the Arlington Park Metra station, then drive home, and I regularly got home around 10:45 every night. And then I had to be back in my desk at work at 8:30 the next morning. It sucked.

  • R

    Yes that is very true. I’ve heard the term “blink transportation” and I think thats basically what you are trying to get at. CTA rail service provides this type of service in which a person can head to a station without knowledge of schedules and get decent on time service without waiting or “blinking”. With core capacity grants on the way and ridership jammed on several lines, I’d say CTA is doing well and looking to improve, quickly at that without falling too far behind. Now howw can Metra even start to move in this direction shall be seen…

  • CTA is mostly there on trains (though the consistent, should-just-be-scheduled rush-hour expressing from Station X to Station Y is insulting and annoying, especially when they express constantly from Halsted to Jackson, bypassing a great Metra cross-connect station).

    The busses, however, are Metra-level abysmal in large stretches of the city.

    One specific example: I live near Pulaski and Wilson. My husband commutes to UIC every weekday; if the weather is good he bikes, otherwise CTA. If he does not manage to leave the house BEFORE 8AM, the bus headways widen to about 40min apart. It then stays that way till about 9:30, at which point they get back to hovering just under 30min headways.

    This is insane. It is often faster for him to walk down Pulaski to the blue line than to wait for the Pulaski bus … if he didn’t make his One True Train, Metra-style. In the afternoons, trying to pick up a Pulaski bus at the Irving Park blue line station, he has a similar problem: if he’s not at the bus stop by 6:15, the 45min headways are back in effect.

    This is all a lot more visible now because of Bus Tracker, so at least he’s not standing there at the stop going WTF WHERE IS MY BUS to the universe at large … Kudos to them for that much transparency, I guess. But it doesn’t seem like anyone’s actually looking at their internal ‘what is really happening’ data and trying to figure out where the problems are and resolve them, they just think 45min headways in the middle of rush hour are fine.

  • BlueFairlane

    Here’s something I’m pondering, and I’m not sure what I objectively think about it.

    My wife and I are somewhat burned out on the city experience, and we seriously considered leaving the Logan Square apartment where we’ve lived for 10 years and heading for the suburbs the last time our lease came up. What ultimately made us opt to stay were the Metra schedules … or lack thereof. We both know that the added stress of driving would negate any increased peace we might gain from the move, but we were afraid of getting caught in some Metra hell where we never knew when we might get home.

    Do we represent some demographic? Is it possible that Metra’s limited access keeps some people in the city who might otherwise head to the suburbs?

  • They contribute to the fact that people who don’t want to structure their whole lives around cars have almost no options for suburban living, yes.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    This will only work if you have people who are transportation or planning people and not just a bunch of political hacks.

  • Deni

    They could do that to start and then electrify the lines in the city at the very least and run trains as a metro to all the stations in the city, even building new ones that would only be served by the metro service trains and bypassed by all commuter trains. You could see frequent trains along the UP North corridor at new stations like Chicago, Division south of Clybourn, at Peterson and Devon between Ravenswood and Roger Park. What you could do to close some of the large transit gap areas on the west and northwest side (or at least make the gaps smaller) by having frequent trains on the North Central all the way between downtown and O’Hare transfer, and the UP Northwest line, Milwaukee District North line. Add stops for Chicago, Division, North on the North Central/MD North lines and you have much better service both south and west of Humboldt Park.

  • “Do we represent some demographic?”

    Everyone who lives in the suburbs and knows about Metra but chooses not to ride Metra, eh?

  • The professional staff would still be the same people who used to work for the freight railroads. And I’m skeptical that a budgeting committee (because that’s what Biss proposes them for) would call for commuter rail staff to go over and see what rapid transit staff were doing.

  • BlueFairlane

    My situation is more that I choose not to live in the suburbs even though I sort of want to because I know about Metra and know I won’t get to ride Metra as often as I’d prefer.

  • My aunt-in-law lives in Evanston, 2 blocks from a Metra station, and works on Navy Pier. She prefers to train in, but is often working on a weekend or at a nonstandard commuting time … so more than half the time she drives, instead.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Couldn’t you of parked at the Blue Line and used that?

  • Jim Mitchell

    Yes, technically possible, but not practical for my circumstances at the time. First, getting there from Buffalo Grove would have required me to take the Tollway (294) from Lake Cook Road, adding a couple of bucks a day to my commute at a time when I could scarcely afford it (I was a paralegal going to law school at night). Second, the traffic on that route during rush hour was even worse than it is now (this was before iPass and it was regularly a 20 minute wait at the O’Hare toll booths), whereas shooting west on Lake Cook Rd. and south on 53 was a relatively painless drive. Also, before Milwaukee Avenue and Lake Cook were converted to a flyover, that was another ungodly traffic bottleneck to even get from Buffalo Grove to the nearest entrance to 294 (imagine about a mile or more of cars waiting for a red light, every morning). So, unfortunately, that was the best I could do until the Metra North Central Service opened up with a station in Buffalo Grove; but by that time, I was almost completely done with law school, and a year or so after that, I moved away from there. Lots of suburban residents face similar poor choices.

  • JacobEPeters

    Isn’t there a separate planning committee within the proposal?

  • Nathanael

    You’re the Streetcar Suburb demographic, BlueFairlane. It’s a HUGE demographic. Sadly you have very few choices, and they’re very expensive.

    Think Evanston on the Red Line… oh wait, that urbanized and got expensive, didn’t it? Skokie on the Purple Line.

    Some of the Metra lines have much more reliable, frequent schedules than others — the BNSF line to Aurora, for instance. But of course the towns along that line have gotten very expensive.

    The problem is that there is insufficient supply of streetcar suburbs to meet demand.

  • FG

    I love that the picture is Metra Electric next to a freight line which is totally separate from Metra’s tracks in this ROW (i.e. no freight interference which is why MED has a Saturday express schedule unlike other Metra lines).

    My concern with combining rail is we’ll end up like Philly with no subway investment and all the (albeit little) money for rail going to the suburban commuter lines.

  • I don’t think so. There’s a capital budget committee that would approve all of the service divisions’ budgets, but RTA administration staff would be the coordinating planners.

  • JacobEPeters

    you’re right, I was thinking of what I had suggested to him at his presentation in November. I proposed having a planning department which had planners working in each of the agencies, so that they could coordinate as a group. Similarly to Active Trans employees working at CDOT. Only this would be more like CMAP employees working at CTA, Metra, Pace, and the newly formed bus agency.

  • Could you ask next time?

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  • That might be why MED has that, but that’s not the same reason why other lines don’t have that. Is freight traffic higher on Saturdays that the other lines can’t have express or more frequent schedules?

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