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RTA chief calls idea for one transit superagency DOA

Updated: March 24, 2014 11:46AM



The chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority on Wednesday described a proposal to fold the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace into one superagency as virtually dead on arrival, saying it had “very little, if any, support” politically.

John Gates Jr. said those were his “personal observations” about an idea members of a gubernatorial task force will vote on by month’s end.

Gov. Pat Quinn has asked the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Taskforce to give him recommendations on how to improve the efficiency of the RTA and the three transit boards whose finances it oversees by Mar. 31.

Several task force members strongly support dissolving the RTA and putting the CTA, Metra and Pace under one superagency — a la New York — that would plan and fund transit regionally.

“From the point of view of efficiency, economy and effectiveness, that can make a lot of sense,’’ Gates said of the idea. “But politically, it has very little, if any, support, both throughout the region and in Springfield.’’

Though the idea may make “intuitive” sense, Gates said, it “should be looked at hard.’’

Also Wednesday, RTA board members heard some tidbits of good news about Chicago area transit agencies amid task force plans to shake them up.

An RTA analysis indicated Chicago area transit is highly efficient, racking up the smallest operating cost per mile in 2012 among 10 big-city systems.

And CTA, Metra and Pace combined were tops in getting the most miles out of their machines before mechanical failures, despite having the the third-highest percentage of vehicles combined rated as being beyond their normal life.

Fares of CTA rail, Metra rail and Pace suburban bus service came in as cheaper than the average among six big-city systems — although the comparison was done before the CTA raised the price of its passes. However, the Chicago area as of 2012 was only investing $64 per resident in transit compared to $240 in New York and $85 in Los Angeles, an RTA summary noted.

Gates jumped on the cheaper fare theme to note that a transit fare increase could be used to support bonds to address the system’s massive capital needs.

In fact, RTA auditor Mike Zumach specifically recommended that — barring any unforeseen federal windfall — Metra should float bonds to replace its aging trains and locomotives. Metra has hesitated to do so unless it can identify a revenue stream to pay for the debt service.

Zumach estimated that Metra could buy 100 new rail cars with $300 million in bonds and pay $21 million to $24 million a year in debt service.

The bonding recommendation was one of several Zumach proposed as part of an RTA post mortem on Metra’s response to January’s brutal weather, including two days of “Chiberia” that left hordes of riders waiting for delayed trains in subzero temperatures.

Zumach described a mob scene at Union Station, with hordes of delayed Metra riders intersecting with Amtrak riders. He said Metra was “at the mercy” of Amtrak, which owns Union Station, but needs to work with Amtrak on improving the traffic flow of Metra riders.

Many Metra riders described the crowds at Union Station as “dangerous” in written responses to a February Metra survey, according to a report about the survey in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times.

Zumach’s other suggestions for Metra included enclosing two outdoor train servicing areas and adding another enclosed one, adding cameras at outlying stations where no station attendants can give Metra an assessment of crowds, adding LED screens with text to the scrolling screens at Union Station and negotiating an on-time “incentive” into contracts with BNSF and UP. The chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority on Wednesday described a proposal to fold the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace into one superagency as virtually dead on arrival, saying it had “very little, if any, support” politically.



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