Task force ponders regional transit board; city officials want it derailed

Written By By ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter Posted: 04/19/2014, 06:24am

A gubernatorial task force Monday leaned toward recommending that four existing transit boards be replaced with one regional board — an idea immediately dumped on by Chicago officials.

Spokespersons for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Transit Authority both contended a regional “superagency” with board members appointed by multiple politicians would be accountable to no one.

Even one member of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force wondered if Chicago would be shortchanged by a proposal to rearrange the lines of transit authority into a more New York-like model. Carole Brown, who also once served as CTA chair, said the city owns the Orange Line as well as the subway sections of the Red and Blue Lines and helps police the CTA, so it has more of an investment in local transit than other areas.

“The investment the city has made in the CTA is huge, so you can’t just say ‘Give it away to somebody else,’ ’’ Brown said.

Task force members worked Monday to reach consensus on which transit model to recommend to Gov. Quinn and lawmakers by a Mar. 31 deadline. The majority leaned toward a New York-like superagency model, but the task force won’t finalize their ideas with a vote until Mar. 27.

The proposal would eliminate the current 47 members of the CTA, Metra and Pace boards, as well as the RTA board that oversees their finances, in favor of one regional board overseeing a regional agency that would plan and fund transportation projects across city and county lines. The CTA, Metra, Pace and possibly Pace’s paratransit service would be reduced to “operating arms,’’ with their own executive directors who would report to a superagency CEO. The RTA would die off.

The proposal is based on New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees buses, subways, railroads, bridges and tunnels from New York City to Connecticut. The governor appoints the MTA chairman, who also serves as CEO, plus five other members of the 17-member board. Another four are appointed by the mayor of New York and others by county officials. Six additional non-voting members include representatives of commuter groups and unions.

Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton was cool to the superagency idea Monday, saying by email that “Chicagoans demand a public transportation framework that is accountable to riders and taxpayers, which is what we have at the CTA. The mayor is not interested in a solution that replaces one unaccountable bureaucracy with another.’’

A “superagency” for Northeastern Illinois transit would be “a bureaucratic nightmare, appointed by dozens of politicians and accountable to no one,’’ agreed CTA spokesman Brian Steele. “[The CTA’s ] governance model has been a key reason for the swift turnaround of an agency with significant fiscal challenges just three years ago.’’

CTA President Forrest Claypool also has previously criticized the superboard approach, saying if Chicagoans don’t like CTA decisions now, they can vote out the mayor, but a superagency would be accountable to no one.

“I would never work for such a crazy governance structure,” Claypool said last fall. “You’re working for a committee, which — forget about it.”

New Metra chairman Martin Oberman said superagency board members would have a lot to learn. He is still learning Metra’s many complexities and adding the intricacies of two other agencies would be quite a challenge, Oberman said.

“You have to be careful about making their jobs so complicated that no one can perform them and then there’s no oversight,’’ Oberman said.

Oberman also questioned a proposal that superagency board members not be paid.

“Then who is going to serve?” asked Oberman, an attorney. “I am spending an enormous amount of time on this task. … But at some point you have to buy food and pay rent, unless you are independently wealthy.’’

Task force co-chairs Ann Schneider of the Illinois Department of Transportation and George Ranney of Metropolis Strategies clearly favored the superagency as a way to end parochial disputes and force regionwide planning. Taskforce member Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. Attorney here, said he would “vote strongly’’ for that model, adding that “we need to break the mold and start with something fresh.’’

Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said he recommended the superagency model to the task force, and New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Boston use similar approaches. Chicago’s mayor might lose control of the CTA under it, he wrote in an Oct. 8 letter to the task force, but an RTA-like requirement of “supermajority” votes could allow Chicago members appointed by the mayor to protect Chicago’s interests.

Right now, Schlickman said, “We have 47 board members, four boards, and everyone is pointing fingers at each other as to who is accountable.’’

Gov. Pat Quinn formed the task force last year in the wake of the Metra Board’s controversial decision to give then-Metra CEO Alex Clifford a 26-month buyout worth up to $871,000 with only eight months left on his contract.

Ranney Monday urged the task force to produce the “best recommendations” and not worry about how politicians might frame them into a law.

“Some politics will come later,’’ Ranney said. “Let’s not try to outsmart the Legislature.’’

Email: rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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