The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) has a lot of work to do if the northeastern Illinois public transit network it oversees plans on becoming a "world-class system" anytime soon, panelists said at a discussion on the topic Tuesday at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
The RTA is the oversight agency for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra and Pace, covering Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. The agency was created in 1974 and was reformed in 1983 and 2008.
Stephen Schlickman, who served as RTA's executive director from 2005 to 2010 and currently heads up UIC's Urban Transportation Center, said RTA's multi-agency structure "isn’t working as well as it should be." He noted that regional public transit systems in other U.S. metro areas are typically organized as one agency. The region's current transit structure has four governing boards, for the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace, with 47 members.
"There is a serious lack of accountability when you have such a complex structure," he stressed. "We have complexities, not only in governance, but also in service overlap, in capital planning and programming, in the equities in the allocation of our finances. These topics defy public understanding."
Most of the concerns the transportation experts raised at the UIC discussion echoed the initial findings of the 15-member state task force currently working to come up with a “fundamental overhaul” of the northeastern Illinois public transit agencies. Gov. Pat Quinn set up the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force in August in an effort to "ensure greater efficiency, accountability, coordination and transparency” at the transit agencies.
The task force was formed in response to the Metra scandal surrounding a controversial $871,000 board-approved severance package to the company’s former CEO Alex Clifford. Critics of the board say the costly severance package was "hush money" to keep the allegations Clifford raised of patronage deals and shady hiring practices within the agency quiet.
The overall goal of the task force is to offer "recommendations for creating a world-class transit system for the region." The 15-member panel issued its interim report October 16. The final report will be submitted to the governor and the General Assembly on January 31.
Among other things, the task force's preliminary findings show that "there is no region-wide plan to increase transit ridership."
At Tuesday's discussion, Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), said that the region will see its population increase by some two million people over the next 25 years, and the state's highway system simply can't handle those additional cars.
As such, CMAP set a goal in its comprehensive regional plan, Go To 2040, to boost the region's weekday transit ridership by 2.3 million in 2015 to 4 million by 2040.
But Peter Skosey with the Metropolitan Planning Council questioned how the region could "possibly keep up with the pace of growth that we have if we're [currently] underinvesting in our transit services.”
The Chicago region, Skosey said, has seen a "profound" underinvestment in public transit capital spending over the past two decades. And meanwhile, regions like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle have at least doubled their capital spending within that same time period, he said.
"In the Chicago region, it's about 25 percent less [than other regions] over the past 20 years," he stressed.
Skosey also noted that just 22 percent of the overall region and only 32 percent of the region's jobs are currently located within a half mile of public transit.
"Those are terrible stats," he said. "We should be doing far better than that.”
Jacky Grimshaw with the Center for Neighborhood Technology chimed in, saying public transit does not equally serve everyone in the region, making it difficult for people without a car in underserved areas to travel and get to work.
"The core is well connected, but areas on the periphery are significantly less so," she explained. "Even transit riders in the better-served, core areas want and need improved service."
Meanwhile, Schlickman said the RTA's current structure allows the "public agencies to shirk responsibility" and "point fingers" when it comes to tough issues such as the Metra controversy, achieving a universal fare card system and eliminating the backlog of more than $19 billion in facility and vehicular improvements, to name a few. Additionally, there is a "significant lack of coordination" among transit services.
"Most seriously, this structure prevents us from speaking from one voice," he stressed. "If we're going to take on and be effective in Springfield [on] a matter of increased funding for the region to deal with the backlog in capital funding and to expand the system to serve a growing population that we have, we have to speak with one voice."
Blankenhorn said he believes most people consider the northeastern Illinois transit network to be "a number of separate operating systems that coordinate on occasion" — and not a regional system.
"Coming from a regional planning agency, I think that's the biggest downfall for us," he stressed. "We don't even think about it in the right way."
Grimshaw said she hopes at least one of the improvements that will comes as a result of the the task force is a change in the appointing process for RTA board members. Currently, the RTA's 15 board members and its chairman are appointed from the six-county region.
"If I am appointed by the McHenry County chairman, I'm looking at how can I protect some chance of investment in McHenry County," Grimshaw explained. "I am not thinking of what's best for the region."
Skosey added that it's hard for the RTA to "do anything that is robust or innovative" in the region because a supermajority vote is usually required for board actions.
"If you do something bold and make a huge investment in one part of the region, well then some other part of the region isn't getting that," he said.
Also, the panelists said the mass transit network cannot become a world-class system when the RTA still disperses a large chunk of operating money to agencies using a funding formula based on a 30 year-old law. The funding method, which the panelists said needs to be changed, does not allow money to be doled out according to things like ridership or need, but instead from the sales tax based on where goods are bought.
"That makes no sense to me at all ... why would we think that because 30 years ago we thought the CTA should get 'x' percent of the dollars that that's how it should be today," Blankenhorn asked.
State task force members also agreed that the "current funding levels do not meet the operating and capital needs of the system, and the current process of allocating funding by formula does not support a coordinated, regional approach to ensuring a world-class system."
Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Strategies, stressed that improving mobility in the region also means embracing alternatives to the RTA, including taxi cabs and the ridesharing services Lyft and Uber, which are smartphone apps that connect riders to drivers, to name a few.
"You have this whole rich array of options, and my contention is that they’re going to grow, and public policy ought to be encouraging and supporting the growth of these options,” Beal said. "They’re there because the automobile isn’t doing the job for everybody, and public transit, as currently organized, isn’t doing the job for everybody.”
The panelists stressed that more work is needed in order to modernize the public transit system into one that people in the region want to use as their first option for traveling. Moreover, the experts said the system has to be able to move the most number of people in the most efficient way possible; and currently, it's nowhere near that goal.
According to the task force, 18 percent of all work trips in the Chicago metro region in 1980 were on transit. By 2010, however, that number had dropped to 13 percent. Within that same timeframe, traffic congestion nearly tripled, the interim report reads.
"The world-class, global region that we are is dependent on our transit system," Grimshaw stressed. "We have to keep pounding and pounding that into the heads of the decision makers that are really holding us hostage."