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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.”

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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.

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  • AdamHerstein

    “There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities” – The understatement of the century.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I have a problem writing good headlines, but I think this one’s appropriate.

  • Ted R

    The “glimmer of hope” you refer to is really only for Pace & CTA. As long as Metra insists on having employees walk the aisles and punch paper tickets by hand, there won’t be a universal fare system in Chicagoland. Whether it’s a new proof-of-payment service or turnstiles allowing for zonal service, something has to change before Metra can integrate its fares with CTA & Pace.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Metra is also required by that law to be part of the universal fare system, but the RTA missed the deadline of September 15th this year on telling the General Assembly on how it plans to do that.

      Metra has said they will be experimenting with digital tickets soon, using barcodes on smartphone screens.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The 2015 mandate is for “a regional fare payment system”. Not a common fare media. All Metra will have to do is accept Ventra cards for payment, perhaps with ticket machines at each station.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Right. And Ventra is not just a card system, but a fare system that includes a “bring your own” bank card, reloadable transit cards, one-time use disposable cards, and compatible mobile devices.

  • ardecila

    Seems like Metra could really be an innovator by partnering with Square or some other smartphone-payment company. Or they could have a system like Caltrain, where you “tap in” and “tap out” at readers and you’re assessed a fare based on the distance you traveled. You’d need some method of enforcement, though.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      The enforcement on Caltrain is quite simple for Clipper card users: as the conductor checks fares, they ensure that the Clipper card user tapped in before boarding and has sufficient balance on the card’s “e-purse” (the minimum balance is advertised on platforms and on the PA system).

      Partnering with Square sounds like a neat idea, worth exploring. Square has its hands in all kinds of financial transaction settings now that I wouldn’t be surprised if the company is working on a relationships with a transit agency.

  • Nathanael

    The lack of cooperation here dates back decades and was originally the reason for the creation of the RTA (which can, charitably, be described as a failure in its mission). I honestly don’t know how to fix the problem.

    The *ideal* fix would be a governmental reorganization, such as has happened repeatedly in the London area. Merge all of the counties involved and subordinate everything to a single powerful county government, while separating the City of Chicago into smaller units to avoid the “Chicago vs. suburbs” mentality and give the “underrepresented” parts of Chicago their own governments. The current borders are a mess driven by history.

    But I think the underlying tensions and lack of “shared identity” which caused Will County and DuPage county to be separated from Cook County back in the 1830s are still there — so this is impossible. Wholesale governmental reorganization has been performed repeatedly in the UK, and occasionally in France and Germany, but never in the US.

  • Jennifer

    Some people would also love to cure cancer—and that’s why they have careers *working to cure cancer.* Nathanael is right: the RTA is a failure, and the chairman’s statement is basically an admission of that failure.

    Several funding crises ago, Metra argued in On the Bi-Level that they were entitled to a larger share of RTA funding than CTA on the grounds that the served—I am not making this up—a [some huge percent] larger geographical area.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Maybe the agencies should receive funding based on how much service per person per dollar they give.