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Dueling RTA letters show ‘reform’ debate really a battle over money and power: Brown

Updated: October 15, 2013 6:58AM

The debate over how to revamp oversight of Chicago area mass transit took an intriguing turn Wednesday with publication of a letter from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s RTA appointees taking RTA Chairman John Gates to task for suggesting an expansion of the agency’s authority.

That letter, which appeared in the Sun-Times, was immediately answered by another from RTA board member Al Jourdan, a McHenry County Republican, lashing back at the city representatives for “political grandstanding.”

Finally, the real fight is out in the open.

What started as an ostensible effort to straighten out Metra after the second scandal in three years is getting back to more familiar territory—a struggle for money and power.

You can’t open up the can of worms that is mass transit funding in northeastern Illinois without dealing with the difficult balancing act of how to apportion the tax dollars that subsidize it.

That always comes down to how to be fair to both the suburban areas where most of those tax dollars are generated and the city where the demand for mass transit is greatest.

For as long as there has been an RTA, that’s been the rub, and when anybody starts talking “reform,” somebody else eyes them suspiciously in anticipation of a power grab.

A series of public pronouncements from Gates last month on how to improve RTA oversight, including line-item veto power over the budgets of CTA, Metra and Pace, produced exactly that reaction from the RTA board’s five city representatives.

In their letter, they set the record straight that Gates’ suggestions had been his own and were not discussed with the RTA board, which I admit had been lost on me until they pointed it out.

At the same time, they went beyond that to call into question the very role of the RTA, while objecting to any proposal to expand that role if it would grow the agency’s budget.

They also seemed to question whether the public needs RTA oversight of the three transit boards, given other outside agencies that look over their shoulders.

And they even went so far as to assert that “the RTA’s budget is twice what state law allows,” which left veteran suburban RTA board members such as Jourdan and Don Totten scratching their heads as to what they were talking about.

“That’s a new one on me,” Totten said.

Sarah Pang, an Emanuel appointee to the RTA, said she drafted the letter with input from her fellow city representatives, but couldn’t offer an explanation for that passage either.

“The real point we’re getting at there is we need to examine our own house,” Pang said.

Jordan and Totten said they believed the letter had been written by staff at the CTA, or possibly the Emanuel administration.

Spokesmen for both the city and CTA denied any involvement, but said they had been briefed in advance of its contents. A spokesman for the mayor said the letter reflects viewpoints that the mayor has expressed publicly.

I’m thinking that it moves the mayor further down the road than we’ve seen previously, and in the direction of neutering the suburban-controlled — and therefore Republican-controlled — RTA.

“Instead of adding to an expensive bureaucracy that doesn’t deliver a single rider to their destination, we should embrace the current momentum for real change,” the RTA’s city representatives wrote in what we now can conclude reflects the mayor’s thinking.

Jourdan, for one, interprets this as the CTA looking for a bigger share of the funding, which is always the case.

“It boils down to money, M-O-N-E-Y,” Jourdan told me, admitting that RTA staff helped him draft his letter, which suggested the city board members resign if they don’t see the value of the RTA.

The RTA board is scheduled to meet again Friday, at which time I gather we can expect some open and frank discussions — or more of the same.

I’ve already told you I’m dubious about the proposals to expand the RTA’s authority, just as I am dubious about any proposal that would reduce oversight over the CTA or coordination between the agencies.

New talk of combining CTA, Metra and Pace in one agency is intriguing, though I can’t imagine how state lawmakers might negotiate a route through that minefield.

Democrats will need to be careful not to give suburban voters one more reason to be mad at them in the 2014 elections.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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