Dillard must take RTA in new direction


June 29, 2014 5:38PM

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Updated: August 1, 2014 6:11AM

Chicago established itself as the place where transit doesn’t connect quite right back in the heyday of long-distance rail travel, when anyone traveling through the city had to stop and change trains, even as freight zipped right through.

Nearly a century later, Chicago is fiercely hanging onto its reputation as a capital of transit services that don’t mesh. Public transportation agencies serving the region stake out their turf and view each other with suspicion. People trying to go from one part of the metropolis to another often find transit won’t get them there in a reasonable amount of time, or perhaps not at all.

That’s the challenge for Kirk Dillard, the new Regional Transportation Authority chairman. Dillard, a state senator from Hinsdale who won the RTA job on Wednesday, will have to find a way to stop the incessant budgetary battles and build up an infrastructure that efficiently connects the region.

Dillard got off to a good start as soon as he was voted in without opposition, proclaiming that we should view ourselves as a single transit and economic region that needs a seamless transit system. But he must deal with a public that saw attempts to fix transit governance fail in 1974, 1983 and 2008. The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force earlier this year considered eliminating the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA, Metra and Pace, or blending it into state government. Even George Ranney, who led the referendum to create the RTA 40 years ago, is ready to give up on the RTA and try some other way to run public transit.

Dillard also will hear a lot of grousing from Metra riders, who still haven’t thawed out from last winter’s disastrous performance, which left them freezing on platforms wondering if a train would ever arrive. CTA and Pace riders have their own complaints.

His first major test will come in August, when the fighting will start over next year’s budget. Transit funding mostly is governed by a formula more complicated than the Gordian knot. But the RTA also has a sliver of so-called discretionary funding, and the transit agencies fight over that every year.

Dillard points to his seat on the Illinois Senate Transportation Committee, his vote as one of the few suburban senators in favor of a quarter-cent sales tax increase for transit, his sponsorship of a railroad safety bill and the fact that he lives in the suburbs but grew up in the city, which gives him a wide perspective of transit needs. He also was former Gov. Jim Thompson’s legislative director and former Gov. Jim Edgar’s chief of staff. He says he is the consensus builder that the RTA needs.

That background also will make it easier for him to work with state legislators and the Illinois delegation in Washington to secure more funding. He says public transit absolutely must be a significant part of the state’s next capital spending plan and that he will point out to Downstate school districts, for example, that a humming northeastern Illinois economy bolstered by good transit will generate tax revenue for their schools.

The RTA chairman doesn’t have hiring and firing power, and largely must rely on corralling support from the boards of the RTA and subsidiary agencies, which means making more an unending series of phone calls.

“You have to have patience,” Dillard said on Friday. “To do this really comes down to cooperation.”

Dillard is right to try to take the RTA in a new direction. But the hard part will be getting everyone else on board.

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