Transit shake-up not on fast track, key lawmaker says

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Legislative efforts to dramatically shake up how the Chicago area’s transit agencies are organized probably won’t become a reality until next year, the chairman of the House Mass TransitCommittee said Monday.

Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, said the committee he chairs needs time to analyze recommendations by Gov. Pat Quinn’s transit task force, call its own experts, perhaps seek an analysis by the state general auditor, and hear from the public before crafting or endorsing any bill.

“It’s more realistic to think by some time next year a bill could be introduced” that would address how the Regional Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace are organized and governed, Riley said at a hearing in downtown Chicago.

Quinn’s Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force last month recommended that the RTA be replaced with a regional agency inside which the CTA, Pace and Metra would function as operating units, responsible for their own day-to-day operations.

Four existing transit boards would be replaced by one board, such as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to a recommendation that took more than six months to produce. More funding and better funding formulas, tied in part to performance, also were recommended.

An issue as complicated as how the different transit agencies are governed and funded requires a lot more legislative work and thought, Riley said Monday. He doubted bills about them could be crafted or passed this legislative session.

Bills creating greater transparency and tougher ethics standards have a much better chance of being passed by the end of May, Riley said. He noted that a bill he sponsored involving live-streaming of transit meetings and posting transit meeting minutes on the web has already passed the Illinois House and is now in the Senate.

During the first House Mass Transit Committee hearing on the Quinn task force report, representatives of the RTA, Metra and Pace all insisted they get along, even though Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, and other lawmakers accused them of bickering during annual budget “turf battles.’’

The disputes, particularly about the annual division of discretionary funds, were cited repeatedly by Quinn’s transit task force. Crespo said he’s heard about them since 2008.

“I argue with my brothers and sisters at the dining room table all the time. That doesn’t mean we don’t work together,’’ said Rocky Donahue, Pace deputy executive director.

Jordan Matyas, RTA chief of staff, said there are some “vigorous debates” among the other agencies but “I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.’’ At the end of the day, he said, balanced budgets are finally approved and passed.

Also Monday, Metra legislative liaison Sam Smith revealed that Metra’s long-awaited plans to introduce WiFi on trains have been stymied once again.

Smith said Metra had hoped to put put requests for proposals on how to install WiFi at little or no cost to Metra in February. But the Metra “quarterback” on the idea, former top executive Alex Wiggins, left Metra in January after being placed on administrative leave. The requests for proposals are not now expected until May or June, Smith said.

Republican State Rep. David Harris, of Mount Prospect, said the feature would be greatly appreciated by riders and “I hope this is not moving at a snail’s pace.”

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