What is regional transit? RTA undertaking its own strategic plan update process


It’s rare to see CTA and Metra signs in the same place. The LaSalle Intermodal Transfer Center at LaSalle Street and Congress Parkway is a great step in making transit work “regionally”: it connects Rock Island District trains and multiple bus routes. It provides weak signage directing riders to the Jackson Blue Line station one block away. Photo by Anne Alt. 

“The Regional Transportation Authority values input of how to better the regional transit system. The RTA is conducting a survey to help gather ideas to inform the strategic planning process.” This quote is from its website promoting the process.

In August we published an article from two guest contributors about Metra and its own strategic plan update process. One critique was that Metra was doing this independently of the other “service boards” (Chicago Transit Authority and Pace) and its parent organization, RTA. You can provide your input on their strategic planning process with an online survey through January 25, 2013.

I reached out to RTA to understand why, again, there is an organization doing this planning process alone.

In a nutshell, there are separate (coordinated, not independent) strategic planning processes that are undertaken by the individual agencies because transit aims to strike a balance between addressing long-term, regional concerns and more near-term, local needs.

The scope of Service Board strategic planning initiatives usually encompasses operating and service provision issues—issues for which the service boards are experts. For example, this might include developing or revising service planning standards—at what level of demand should we increase service or build an infill station? Does the agency have enough reliable vehicles in its fleet to provide the desired levels of service envisioned for the next 2-3 years? These are the nature of issues for which the service boards have the most experience and local knowledge by which to develop plans and policies.

I’m not very familiar with what the RTA does on a day-to-day basis making it difficult for me to generate specific recommendations and suggestions for what the RTA should be doing as the oversight agency of CTA, Metra, and Pace. But I have a belief on what it should be doing: I recommend such pan-system improvements as “implement a universal fare payment mechanism”, or “market all transit services collectively to potential new users” (see Update at the end).

In coordination with these plans, the RTA also undertakes a strategic planning process that focuses on shared regional issues—issues that would be more effectively taken up if addressed collectively rather than independently. For instance, some of these issues include the role that transit plays in promoting a greener environment, our need to address a significant and long-standing capital backlog, and transit’s role in providing mobility to a region that is increasingly aging.

While from a general public standpoint it may be confusing to see separate strategic plans led by different agencies, it’s important to note that these plans intend to address different issues and are done in consultation of and coordination with other agencies.

Regional cooperation is not simply about making explicit connections like the LaSalle Intermodal Transfer Center (pictured above), but also about understanding what the region needs. A job that should be specifically assigned to RTA is one of obtaining funding on behalf of its three service boards. Do four separate agencies need to be making appeals to state and congressional legislators? The RTA, as an organization that gathers a lot of information from its service boards and is focused almost entirely on administration and planning, seems well-poised to gain understanding of transit needs and present their requests with greater force and earnestness. Or tell Grid Chicago readers that if they want better transit, they’re going to have to demand it from the legislators who control transportation funding. (I see complaints weekly, wherein people harp on CTA for not doing enough. In many cases their hands have been tied by the subsidy amount they receive; it costs a lot of money to operate buses and trains 24 hours a day and the CTA does an excellent job maximizing many revenue opportunities like advertising and real estate.)

You might be like me, seeing quirks in the day-to-day operations of Chicagoland transit systems, as you ride them, where they’re not working “regionally” and cohesively. Take a look at the downtown Chicago Metra train stations. None of them have direct, easy, and apparent connections to CTA’s rail transit. On a baseball game day, thousands of Cubs and White Sox fans are entering Chicago via Metra trains making their way to stadiums where each have multiple CTA lines reaching them (Wrigley Field has Red and Purple; U.S. Cellular Field has Green and Red). Yet, as hundreds exit Northwestern, Union, Millennium, and LaSalle Street stations by the minute, a large portion of these transit passengers are hailing taxicabs. When the City of Chicago ran a free shuttle bus service, some of these travelers would board the vehicles (to where I’m not sure).

The RTA is assisting in creating the interagency transfer signage improvements at Blue Island/Vermont Street stations in Blue Island (to be installed by 2015) and “Real Time Next-Bus Signs for shelters and key transit centers for CTA and Pace”, according to RTA spokesperson Diane Palmer. She noted that many other stations in the system have had interagency signage installed and that there are plans to test new signage at Union Station this year.


The pickup and dropoff zone on Madison Street outside Northwestern Train station sees a lot of taxi activity for arriving Metra passengers. Would they ride CTA to their destination? Photo by Eric Pancer. 

Would it not be RTA’s job to say, “Hey Metra and CTA, thousands of baseball fans are taking Metra but few of them are finding themselves on a CTA train that drops off within a few hundred feet of their respective stadium. Let’s sit down and talk about how we can keep these transit users continuing to use transit for each segment of their trip.”?

Disregarding a costly – but highly effective – direct walkway between CTA and Metra stations downtown, what are other ways to direct incoming Metra passengers to use CTA for the second trip in their journey? The universal fare payment mechanism could be a start in this direction – CTA and Pace will be using Ventra later this year. Some signage may help. Paid staff acting as “ambassadors” directing people between stations. There is no shortage of signs on the roads in Lakeview and environs telling car drivers how to access the Cubs-specific parking lots where for $6, fans – everyone in a single car – can get a parking space and a bus ride to the stadium plus a return trip to the car!

As transit advocates, and advocates for lower pollution and less destructive use of our costly roads, we want more people to make more of their trips on buses and trains. The ideas I’ve described are bottom of the barrel in terms of complexity and feasibility but it would have a lot of effect in promoting and solidify the concept of “regional transportation”. I look forward to RTA’s continued improvement on achieving that.

Update: 10:30

I asked RTA for some information about its involvement in implementing universal fare payment and its marketing programs. Spokesperson Diane Palmer returned my email just after publication explaining that the organization has done quite a bit to develop a regional fare system:

The RTA recently developed an interagency fare policy that has been shared with the service board operators and our board. We support the region moving towards an open and electronic payment system that is convenient and makes transit across our region more accessible. To that end, we have funded demonstrations and studies for the transit agencies. We are all working towards meeting a legislative requirement that all three services boards provide an open fare payments system by 2015. The RTA manages Reduced Fare and Free Ride programs for seniors and people with disabilities, and we are currently in the process of preparing for the open fare payment transition that will be compatible with the CTA/Pace Ventra system scheduled to debut later this year. The RTA also funded demo projects to test regional fare solution technologies for Metra.

Palmer identified its websites as part RTA’s marketing strategies, including Drive Less, Live More that was launched last year in partnership with Active Transportation Alliance.

Metra’s movement in the direction of implementing universal fare payment is slow and, well, I wish I could say calculated, but that would be too generous. It’s dumb. Instead of announcing that they’ll join the Ventra system – which they can integrate using handheld electronic ticket readers that’ve been used in places around the country and the world for years* – they’ve mentioned they’ll be testing a barcode and smartphone based electronic ticketing, and published this “update” in their newsletter, On The Bi-Level, in September 2012:

Metra is currently evaluating options for a potential new and improved transit fare payment system.

Earlier this year, Metra established an internal working group to guide the implementation of a regional fare payment solution that would meet the intent of the state law…

The article, by Metra CEO Alex Clifford, then lists all the principles they’ve adopted that will guide them in the search for such a system. In other words, they’re thinking about maybe doing something that uses standards, and are exploring how to comply with the bare minimum of their legal interpretation of what the law intended.


An example handheld electronic ticket reader used on South West trains in the UK. Photo by John Bullas. 

* Caltrain, a single commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose, uses handheld readers, as does DB in Germany.

Updated 12:50 to clarify status of Blue Island/Vermont Street stations signage project. Also added a sentence to that paragraph. 

21 thoughts on “What is regional transit? RTA undertaking its own strategic plan update process”

  1. The cost for the RTA Sign project is not disclosed in article, it was estimated in the millions. The RTA also has not addressed the many concerns for the RTA Sign project of People with Disabilities, or addressed the issues questioned by there own RTA Advisory Committee (current or past committee).

  2. I think would improve the coordination of all these agencies if the state legislature changed it so CTA did not have defacto majority control on its board by the Mayor of Chicago. The 5-4 split (plus President) makes no sense when you look at the funding streams. For the rough equivalent of one day’s take at the farebox the City gets to run CTA. How does that make sense?

      1. What does the City of Chicago contribute to CTA financially? $3 million dollars? There are roughly 1.5 million fares each day where the CTA nets a little less than $2 each in revenue. That’s what I meant by my “farebox” remark.There’s also some kind of real estate transfer tax that funds CTA that kicks in something like $80M per year. Total public funding is over $600 million dollars. Meanwhile for something like the Red Line capital projects the state is kicking in $646M to Chicago’s $44M.

        Why should the Mayor control the board of the CTA when the state is footing the bill? CTA as an agency is run (a majority of appointments + the President) by Mayoral appointees (who I see as defacto agents of City Hall, you may disagree). Shouldn’t the governing power be tied to the source of funding? I think this disconnect is a big reason for dysfunction between the alphabet agencies (CTA, MTA, RTA) and the false “city-vs.-everywhere else” mentality that comes up.

        1. Because the state ISN’T FOOTING THE BILL. RTA provides most of the non-farebox revenue for CTA. Where does RTA get the money? Sales taxes in the area. Where is most of that sales tax revenue generated? Chicago.

          1. Isn’t RTA sales tax a Cook County tax? So why does the Mayor of Chicago get to appoint CTA board members and not the Cook County President? That law was passed at the state level and City Hall has exactly zero to do it. Chicago residents are represented by many elected officials. I just question why the head of our municipal government gets so much say over money collected at the county and state level. And I stand by what I said about capital funds which come overwhelmingly from the state of Illinois.

          2. Also when the state does kick in some money, remember where that money came from. Chicago tax payers are a huge part of the state’s revenue. Why shouldn’t state transportation funds be spent on projects that benefit them?

  3. In addition to the railroads listed in the main article, Amtrak has also successfully rolled out a bar code scan ticketing system that works on a smartphone and tablet screens, or printed tickets and allows tickets to be bought online, in station, or with a smartphone app. This isn’t some bleeding edge, untested technology, other fairly conservative operators have this system up and running with most of the bugs worked out. Expecting Metra to keep pace with other RTA agencies and Amtrak doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.

  4. It always frustrates me that there is not a direct connection between Metra and CTA, even in places where the stops are right next to each other (See Evanston Davis Street station).

    Also, why does Mr. CTA only announce Metra connections in the Loop? The Damen Brown Line station connection to the Metra UP-N line at Ravenswood, and the aforementioned Davis Street connection should have announcements as well.

    1. You make a good point. Metra and CTA should announce the connections that are natural. It would be a good diplomatic gesture from both agencies.

    2. Also the Western Pink Line, and Western BNSF, Kedzie Green Line and Kedzie UP-W (also Harlem Green and Oak Park UP-W), Montrose Blue Line and Mayfair MD-N, Irving Park Blue Line and Irving Park UP-NW (also Jefferson Park), and 35th Red Line, 35th-Bonzeville-IIT Green Line and 35th-Lou Jones RI to name a few more. The potential for non downtown CTA to Metra transfers is huge.

    3. Google Earth has a .3-mile walk between Damen and Ravenswood—it’s something of a rule of thumb that people are willing to walk only a half-mile or so to transit, so a .3 mile walk for a transfer—something people already hate doing—means that almost no one will take it. Then factor in your the chance the CTA’s running slow—you may well be waiting for an hour or more if you miss your train. Even if it was announced, almost no one would use it.

      1. I use that connection all the time because I live on the north side and it saves me from having to go downtown just to take Metra back north.

      2. OTC to Washington/Wells and Union Station to Quincy/Wells are both 0.4 mile walks. Union Station to Clinton Blue Line and OTC to Clinton Green/Pink are both 0.3 mile walks. Ravenswood to Damen is on par with the announced Metra to CTA transfers.

  5. I’m a daily Metra UP-N rider and a Cubs fan. I (and many other fans) use the transfer point at Evanston-Davis-Metra-Purple-CTA stations to get to games. People coming from the north can take the UP-N to Davis, change to the purple line, take that down into the city if it’s an evening game or transfer to red for day games.
    It’s not straightforward, and you’d have to do your homework or be relatively transit savvy to do it! Not to mention you have to pay both Metra and CTA fares….

  6. It’s ludicrous to me that there is not a link between Union Station and the El. I know dozens of people who walk 30 minutes plus from Union Station to the North Loop ever day because there is no rail and the buses are unreliable (too slow, too crowded, or don’t come at the right time). This is a major reason why I don’t want to move to the suburbs. An expensive problem, but worth fixing. Maybe dedicated bus lanes would help?

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