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World-class transit system could mean oversight shift, fare, tax hike: Brown

Co-Chair George A. Ranney president CEO Metropolis Strategies first meeting Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force Chicago Tuesday September 3

Co-Chair George A. Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, at the first meeting of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force in Chicago on Tuesday, September 3, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Goodbye, RTA. Hello, CMAP?

Before Tuesday, I don’t think I’d ever paid a bit of attention to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Now, we’re being told this little known government agency just might come away with the oversight power for mass transit in the Chicago region as a result of the fallout at Metra.

CMAP (pronounced see-map), as it is known in policy wonk circles, was created in 2005 by merging two equally overlooked agencies: the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission and the Chicago Area Transportation Study.

Planning is one of those governmental functions that does not get a lot of attention in Chicago, because frankly we’re not very big on planning. Hence we tend to ignore planners in favor of reacting to the political whims of whoever is in charge at the moment.

George Ranney Jr., a wonk’s wonk as president and CEO of the civic group Metropolis Strategies and its forerunner, Metropolis 2020, has long advocated putting an end to that way of doing business.

As co-chairman of Gov. Pat Quinn’s public transit task force, which met for the first time Tuesday, Ranney may finally be in a position to help put his philosophies into practice in an area in which he admits he has been previously frustrated.

It’s Ranney’s group that is pushing the idea of eliminating the RTA and assigning its duties to CMAP, which it contends is a much more effectively-run organization. The change could save $17 million a year by eliminating duplication of responsibilities, Metropolis Strategies asserts.

Ranney has also recommended consolidating Metra and PACE, starting by eliminating the rail transit board and turning over its duties to a modified PACE board.

Let me say right here that I have absolutely no idea whether either of these proposals makes sense. This is not my area of expertise, and I haven’t gotten my arms around the proposals just yet.

But I throw them out there to give you an idea of where Quinn’s task force could go as it both responds to the problems at Metra and, theoretically at least, tries to create a “world-class transit system for the 21st century,’’ which were among the day’s leading buzz words.

In mentioning his proposals following Tuesday’s meeting, Ranney said he actually thinks there may be an appetite to go further.

“We’ve become more ambitious,” Ranney said.

While Quinn opened the meeting parroting back many of the Metropolis Strategies’ talking points on the challenges to mass transit in the Chicago area, it’s unclear whether he shares Ranney’s views on the solution.

The governor named state transportation secretary Ann Schneider to co-chair the task force with Ranney, which indicates to me that he doesn’t want the group to create any political problems getting out too far ahead of him.

By the way, a key underpinning of Metropolis Strategies’ transit strategy is to find increased revenue to invest in the system in the form of higher taxes or fares — or both.

In a 2007 report, the group suggested the Legislature either impose a gasoline or parking tax for the RTA, raise the RTA sales tax or broaden it to include consumer services — or reconfigure the fare system based on such factors as distance, speed and time of day.

Jim LaBelle, vice president of Metropolis Strategies and a former Metra board member, said the reforms will have to come first.

“In the end, there is no doubt to meet the needs of the region and have a world-class system, it’s going to take money,” LaBelle said. “Before we go and ask for money, we have to show we’re operating in the most efficient way.”

That could mean dumping RTA for CMAP, which has a similarly constituted board with members drawn from across the same geographic area as RTA. CMAP is chaired by Gerald Bennett, mayor of Palos Hills.

Six years ago, Ranney and Metropolis Strategies saw transit reform as giving the RTA more power not less.

“We were pushing for RTA to have more ability to coordinate and lead. It just hasn’t proven able to do that,” LaBelle said.

LaBelle, who helped draft the legislation creating CMAP, said the agency has proven less political in its decision-making than RTA.

No matter what route reform takes, the one thing I can promise you is that before long they’ll have to do it again because they’re not going to be able to eliminate the politics.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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