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Got Transit Troubles? The Problem Could Be the Chain of Command

Boston's MBTA enjoys unique consolidation, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno
Boston's MBTA consolidates the entire region's transit network, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area -- or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station -- the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.

Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. "It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.

In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA's ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to "chronic underinvestment" in Chicago’s transit network.

The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies -- disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.

The RTA doesn't coordinate or steer Chicago's transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. "The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals," reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.

Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is "shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.

Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.

Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on:

Transit governance structures in the six cities studied by Eno and TransitCenter. Image: Eno Center for Transportation
Transit governance structures in the six cities studied by Eno and TransitCenter. Image: Eno Center for Transportation

Boston’s transit system is the only one of these five where everything is consolidated under one roof: the state-controlled Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). State control works for Boston in a way it might not work for other cities, Eno says, since Boston is the only large metro area in the state and houses the great majority of its population and economic activity. The upside is a much greater level of coordination than in Chicago; the downside is that local governments are alienated from the process.

Dallas has the longest rail transit system in the country by mileage, but poor land use has prevented it from being a particularly successful system. Other Texas quirks also hinder Dallas/Fort Worth, like the state prohibition on local areas taxing themselves for transit, and the fact that the state has completely removed itself from any role in transit funding or planning. The effect of those limitations is that it's almost impossible for new jurisdictions to decide to become part of the transit network, despite rapid population growth.

The powerful North Central Texas Council of Governments runs the show, enjoying a usually-cordial relationship with the DART transit agency. But NCTCOG isn't planning for development and growth in ways that complement transit, and that will make it hard for transit to capture new residents. As a result, the region’s population growth is likely to lead to more driving and highway expansion.

Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul, on the other hand, is guided jointly by the Met Council -- which is unique in the United States in being both the regional planning agency and the primary transit operator -- and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which is the primary funder of transit expansion and improvement.

Combining planning with transit management at the Met Council has its benefits, since the agency can coordinate land use and transit initiatives. The Met Council also coordinates suburban transit operators that do exist to prevent redundancies.

CTIB was created by the state legislature after the governor vetoed a bill that would have increased surface transportation investment in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse and allowed counties to levy sales taxes to invest in fixed rail transit. The veto was overridden, and the legislature’s ensuing creation of CTIB was a direct challenge to Governor Tim Pawlenty’s authority over transit decisions. Even under more transit-friendly administrations, the CTIB governance structure has proven useful, insulates transit from the changing winds of state politics.

In New York, the governor’s outsized role has meant more attention to suburban areas and a chronic underfunding of core system needs, as Stephen Miller at Streetsblog NYC reported last week in his coverage of a panel featuring Eno's Joshua Schank and TransitCenter's David Bragdon.

A further challenge for a region that straddles New York, New Jersey, and the Hudson River is the inability to coordinate effectively over state lines. One lesson other regions can learn from New York, on the other hand, is that both the MTA and the Port Authority, which is jointly run by the governors of the two states, benefit enormously from operating tolled roads and bridges that cross-subsidize transit.

Last but not least, the San Francisco Bay Area has an enviably well-maintained system and a nearly universal fare card. Eno suggests that these benefits were derived largely from having one regional agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), with enough planning and funding authority to make good decisions for the entire region.

“For a region with 26 operators and a spectrum of transit needs, MTC appears to be effective at coordinating and distributing funds for capital investments and operations without causing major political disruptions,” Eno writes.

MTC is also one of the few regional agencies in the countries to effectively use performance metrics to govern funding decisions, and like New York, it uses its surplus toll revenue to fund transit. While Eno notes that the state role could and should be stronger, the MTC has done an impressive job managing an unwieldy transit network.

It’s hard to draw many hard and fast conclusions from case studies so varied. Clearly, no region is run perfectly, but several have developed aspects of governance that help deliver better transit and development.

And as much as the structure of an agency matters, Bragdon told the crowd at last week's panel, leadership matters even more. "The right people can make a flawed structure work, but the wrong people can ruin a perfectly good structure," he said. "Good governance can increase the probability of good governing, but it’s certainly no guarantee of it. We need to be recruiting and constantly training leaders who make those structures work, whatever those structures are."

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