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RTA chairman says he plans to step down

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Chicago Tribune
by Richard Wronski

Chicago businessman John Gates Jr. plans to step down as head of the often-criticized Regional Transportation Authority when his term expires this summer, the Tribune has learned.

Gates said he expects to announce his decision at Wednesday's RTA board meeting so there is time for a new chairman to be elected when his term ends June 30.

A Republican backed for the post by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Gates has been chairman for four years. He believes he still has the support of the frequently divided RTA board members and the politicians who appoint them and was confident he would have been re-elected, he said.

"I've had no indication that there would not have been support from the board and the appointing authorities," Gates said Tuesday. "They never liked 100 percent of what the RTA does, but I've not had a lot of push-back from them."

Gates, 60, said that after his tenure at the RTA and the previous four years as chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, he wants to devote more time to his business, private-sector commitments such as the executive board of Lurie Children's Hospital and to his family.

Gates is chairman and CEO of PortaeCo LLC, a private investment company. Previously he was founder and CEO of CenterPoint Properties Trust.

As the oversight agency for the CTA, Metra and Pace, the RTA has come under fire in recent years for not exerting adequate control over those agencies. The RTA's 16-member board has frequently split along city-suburban lines in funding disputes.

Gov. Pat Quinn's Mass Transit Task Force is expected to report in March on ways to reform the transit system, including recommendations for restructuring the agencies.

An RTA-commissioned study last fall proposed that the four transit boards be melded into a strong, unified agency to escape the often contentious rivalry that exists among the CTA, Metra and Pace. Such a superagency would be similar to transportation agencies in New York City and Philadelphia.

Some critics have called for the RTA to be abolished and its board and staff merged with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Rather than consolidation, Gates said he believes the best route would be to strengthen the RTA's oversight through legislation.

"Although (the RTA) has the responsibility, it doesn't have the authority to compel the service boards to work more closely together," he said.

Gates said the RTA has succeeded in encouraging the transit agencies to stop diverting capital funds — money for equipment and maintenance — for day-to-day operations. But the Chicago area still faces a $32 billion capital backlog over the next 10 years and must find the "political will" to raise the money, he said.

"We need new equipment," Gates said. "We need new switches and electronics, we need a whole bunch of things, and we simply don't have the money to do it."

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