In the wake of the recent Metra patronage scandal, the Regional Transit Authority has come under intense scrutiny. Many journalists, elected officials and policy experts have argued that the current system of separate boards for the CTA, Metra and Pace, overseen by the RTA, lends itself to interagency competition and corruption that gets in the way of improving the area’s transportation network. However, given the complex nature of politics in Illinois, overhauling the system is a daunting task.
Yesterday, UIC’s Great Cities Institute, an urban planning think tank, hosted a roundtable on the future of the RTA and regional transportation planning in Chicagoland. Panelists included Frank Beal, director of Metropolis Strategies, Jacky Grimshaw from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, who also sits on the CTA board, Randy Blankenhorn, director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Stephen Schlickman, director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, and Peter Skosey from the Metropolitan Planning Council.
Early in the discussion, Schlickman gave an eloquent argument for combining the three transit agencies, based on a letter he submitted this fall to the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force. “The RTA needs a different structure if we’re going to create a world-class transit system for Chicago,” he said. “We’ve been trying to make this multi-agency structure work, and it’s not working as well as it should be. If you look at RTA’s peers, they’re primarily one agency. I would refer you to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia… And throughout this country, regional transit systems are organized as one agency.”
He noted that the complicated structure of the current system creates a lack of accountability. “We have complexities not only of governing but also in service overlap, in capital planning and programming, in the equities, and in the allocation of our finances,” he said. “These topics defy public understanding. And it allows the agencies to shirk responsibility and point fingers at each other when there are problems, such as how do we get a universal farecard. How do we finish Block 37 beyond the $219 million unfinished station. How do we rein in ADA cost escalations. What do we do with the Metra scandals.”