A South Shore train travels between northern Indiana and downtown Chicago. It’s not a member of the Regional Transportation Authority of Illinois. Photo by Seth Anderson.
The Regional Transportation Authority is a financial administrator and cooperative service planner at the top of the Chicagoland transit hierarchy. Or at least it’s supposed to be. But transit in Chicagoland doesn’t act regionally, and hasn’t for a long time (if ever). Here’s the evidence:
1. Suburban county board member perpetuates the myth that Metra = suburbs and CTA = Chicago
DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin is quoted in the Daily Herald about an “impasse” in how to distribute some funds amongst the RTA’s three member agencies. The CTA normally would get 99% of this particular pot, but the RTA is proposing it only gets 95%. (Note that CTA provides 82% or rides and receives 49% of region’s funding.)
“The money is collected from all the taxpayers in the region, the majority of whom reside in the suburbs. Why should we subsidize the CTA more than we already are?” he asked. “They seem to care little for their neighbors in the suburbs.”
Each transit agency operates routes and stations in and outside the Chicago city limits. Each has connecting service within and between municipalities, Chicago and not Chicago. Thousands of Chicagoans take Metra daily for work and other purposes to other points within and without Chicago. Thousands of people who don’t live in Chicago ride the CTA. It’s likely true that a majority of Metra’s weekday passengers don’t live in Chicago, though it doesn’t matter where they come from.
Typecasting transit agencies and their respective passengers based on the attributes of where they live and not the place of where they live – the place matters in order to know where service should go – inhibits the slight progression transit has been making in the region in the past decade.
RTA Chairman John Gates’s heart is in the right place when he said, “This is a regional agency, we have to reach a regional consensus.”
Cooperation means more than just crossing each other’s tracks. The Orange Line viaduct rises over the Metra SouthWest Service in Chinatown. Photo by Jeff Zoline.
2. RTA creates a modernization plan without buy-in from at least one of its three members, CTA
The Chicago Tribune reported on Sunday, September 30:
A $2.5 billion bond program to rehab or buy buses and trains, repair tracks and rebuilding bridges is being touted by leaders of the Regional Transportation Authority, but some local transit agencies, notably the Chicago Transit Authority, aren’t ready to sign up. The RTA says there is not enough federal and state funding forthcoming to meet the system’s needs. But CTA President Forrest Claypool says the bond plan would “duplicate existing capital plans and add another layer of unnecessary costs and delay”.
Did the RTA not talk to CTA before writing this plan?
3. RTA’s job is better suited being combined with CMAP, but RTA brushes idea aside
Metropolis Strategies, formerly known as Chicago Metropolis 2020, is an organization “established by The Commercial Club of Chicago in 1999 to maintain and enhance the economic competitiveness of the Chicago region”. In an interview with Chicago Tribune reporter Richard Wronski in August, they said “it believes the agency is no longer the best overseer of the nation’s third-largest transit system”.
A better plan, the civic group proposes, would be to create a new entity by merging the RTA with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), a low-profile organization responsible for land use and transportation planning in northeastern Illinois.
The move would integrate regional planning and transit oversight, Metropolis Strategies said. It also would save at least $10 million a year, or about 20 percent of the agencies’ combined budgets, by reducing overhead, administrative costs and duplicate functions, the group said.
RTA’s Chairman John Gates replied:
RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. disputes Metropolis Strategies’ assessment. While describing longtime friend Ranney as thoughtful, Gates defends the RTA performance and dismisses a merger with CMAP as a “pie-in-the-sky idea.”
“I’d love to cure cancer. I’d love to see Middle East peace. But (combining the agencies) doesn’t really work as a practical matter,” said Gates, who took over at the RTA in 2010 after a successful business career as co-founder of CenterPoint Properties Trust.
We implore the region’s elected officials to investigate the possibility and outcomes of such a merger.
4. Metra goes it alone on making a strategic plan
We published a guest article in August from two transportation grad students on their advice to Metra as the regional passenger railroad was conducting meetings and gathering feedback in developing its long-term strategic plan. Brian Derstine and Ted Rosenbaum wrote:
Metra must cooperate with the RTA, Amtrak, CTA, Pace, freight rail companies, O’Hare and Midway Airports, and regional taxi services to be effective. This means not just operationally, but organizationally as well. Metra should yield to the CTA and Pace if, when the RTA goes to apply to federal or state funds, Metra’s projects are not the most effective for the region. Similarly when seeking regional funds from CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning). It must follow CMAP’s long-range plans, but also be an effective partner in shaping those plans by working with local governments to promote land uses conducive to boosting Metra ridership. Metra shares trackage with Amtrak and freight lines, as well as station space with Amtrak.
There’s one glimmer of hope. A state law passed in 2011 requires that the region have a universal fare system. CTA and Pace, two of RTA’s member agencies, have been accepting each other’s magnetic fare cards for some time, and the CTA’s Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus are usable on Pace buses. They’ve joined up to launch Ventra, the open fare system that allows riders to pay with compatible smartphones (must have an NFC chip), contactless debit and credit cards (from Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover), reloadable transit cards, and one-time use cards.