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Transit superagency faces hurdles
Emanuel among those voicing opposition

Tuesday, April 01, 2014
Chicago Tribune
by Richard Wronski

The authors of a sweeping report calling for the reshaping of the Chicago-area mass transit system into a single superagency acknowledged Monday that their recommendations must overcome significant political obstacles to become reality.

George Ranney Jr., a co-chair of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force that developed the report over the past seven months, said the proposals would need to be considered deeply by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn, who created the task force.

"It's an ambitious program," Ranney said of the 94-page report. "It's an election year. Guys like (House Speaker Michael) Madigan will look at it carefully. … It's not going to fly through."

Concern also was voiced by lawmakers, transit agencies, political leaders and transportation experts, who said the current transit system, which evolved over decades of political wrangling, could not be revamped easily despite its faults.

The 15-member task force, created in the aftermath of last summer's Metra scandal, proposed numerous changes to address the chronic governance, funding and rivalry problems that have beset the area's transit agencies.

The panel's most far-reaching recommendation is creation of a new superagency to oversee the entire six-county area and replace the existing Regional Transportation Authority, along with the boards of the CTA, Metra and Pace.

Under this plan, those agencies would be reduced to "operating units" under an integrated agency with a single board. It would amount to the biggest change in the Chicago area's bus and train system in 30 years, when the current governance structure was created.

Steve Schlickman, a former RTA executive director, said it was unlikely that the General Assembly would act on such a controversial change anytime soon. Only when the legislature has been in "crisis mode" regarding transit funding have lawmakers addressed structural problems and representation, said Schlickman, head of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"That's the nature of the beast in Springfield," he said.

The proposal drew immediate and sharp criticism from the CTA and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who holds much sway in Springfield.

Emanuel does not favor a single superagency to oversee mass transit for the entire area, a spokeswoman said.

Echoing the mayor, the CTA said the move would create "an unnecessary bureaucracy unaccountable to the region's transit riders and taxpayers."

Pace, meanwhile, warned of the "potential for unintended negative impacts" from the single agency proposal.

Pace Chairman Richard Kwasneski said the suburban bus agency was "frustrated by portrayals that the existing system is broken. … The ethical and leadership problems which, in part, led to the creation of the task force did not occur at Pace."

Metra and the RTA provided no immediate comment.

The new oversight board would be responsible for setting policy and strategic direction, determine funding allocations and prioritize investments for the transit system. The operating units would handle day-to-day operations.

The task force urged that the current structure of four boards with 47 members be scrapped and that members of the new 21-member superagency board serve without pay.

Under the current system, transit board members receive $10,000 a year to $25,000, depending on the agency.

"Illinois is the only state in the country that has this many board members who are paid," said Ranney, who helped create the RTA decades ago. "Every other state has people who are willing to step up and give their time like members of this task force did. Why can't we be as civic-minded as other states? … We don't have to use (transit posts) as dumping grounds for political people."

Task force co-chair Ann Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the recommendations were interrelated and needed to be considered as a whole.

"I believe we have bravely recognized the problem ... and charted a path to move forward," she said.

Quinn welcomed the task force report as "we work to restore integrity to our mass transit system." He called it the "first among many major steps to streamline operations and ensure improved service for our millions of riders each year."

The governor said the report would bring about a "meaningful discussion with the General Assembly about next steps to creating a world-class transit system."

To adopt the recommendations, the legislature would have to rewrite the state's Regional Transportation Authority Act.

A spokesman for Madigan took issue with allegations that had been made against the speaker and were cited in the report, including that Madigan had exerted pressure on Metra. Madigan has denied the allegations.

Even so, a House committee will "take a good, hard look at it," said Steve Brown, adding that it was unclear whether a superagency would help the Chicago area or improve service.

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