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Make things better, not worse, at RTA

Updated: August 27, 2013 6:30AM

As the flap at Metra over the departing CEO’s massive golden parachute continues to unfold, everyone seems to have a plan for fixing how regional mass transit is run.

Yes, regional transit has a big mess at the top. Because no single agency runs all public transit, regional solutions to riders’ needs get short shrift. But the restructuring proposals we’re hearing won’t necessarily fix that. We must be careful to avoid anything that makes things worse.

Also, at the heart of the Metra flap was pressure either applied or perceived for political favors to politicians. That kind of interference won’t go away no matter how the boards are restructured unless the folks in charge change their ways.

Transit now is run by three separate service boards — the CTA, Metra and Pace — whose warring priorities are refereed by the Regional Transportation Authority.

That’s not a system that’s very popular right now. Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn talked about restructuring the system. On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said getting rid of the RTA is “an open question.” On Thursday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Daley called for abolishing the RTA and effectively putting Metra under the governor’s control.

Simply abolishing the RTA would encourage the three service boards to go their own way even more than they do now. To prevent that, a proposal in the Legislature would give the RTA’s duties to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. But no one knows if CMAP would do a better job. Right now, it is a research institution that doesn’t have to run anything.

RTA Chairman John Gates thinks the answer is to give the RTA more authority over the service boards. For example, the RTA didn’t get advance notice of Metra’s costly severance agreement with former CEO Alex Clifford, and didn’t have the right to cancel it in any case.

The jerry-rigged system of four boards — what Daley called a “bureaucratic Frankenstein” — has evolved over four decades to ensure no single area gets an unfair share of the tax money raised in the six-county RTA region. It’s not ideal, but it at least guarantees funding equity between the city and suburbs while allowing the CTA, Metra and Pace to serve their constituencies.

The biggest problem regional transit faces is a $30 billion backlog of deferred maintenance that must be addressed in the next decade. If the Legislature helps fix that with a new capital bill, it would ease the fighting for dollars among the service boards more than any restructuring of governance would.

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