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Transit task force is opportunity to make important changes

In absence all board members sesits empty during MetrBoard Meeting MetrHeadquarters Friday August 16 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

In absence of all the board members, a seat sits empty during the Metra Board Meeting at Metra Headquarters on Friday, August 16, 2013. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 20, 2013 6:08AM

We thought we had this whole mass transit governance thing figured out 39 years ago.

The six-county Regional Transportation Authority was created in 1974 with a board split between city and suburbs. In theory, that would force the city and suburban board members to compromise by hiring a nonpartisan transit professional as chairperson to cast the deciding vote.

It didn’t work out that way. The more-organized city members outwaited their suburban counterparts and got their own guy in the top job, setting off us-vs.-them transit wars that never end.

Now, the new 15-member Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, appointed Thursday by Gov. Pat Quinn, is going to take another crack at setting up a system that puts riders first. It is supposed to report back for both the veto and spring legislative sessions.

It will be a shame if all that comes out of this is a few fixes on the margins. This is an opportunity to make big improvements in how our transit systems are run. The task force should focus on finding ways to move people around the region in the most convenient way, and as cheaply as possible, while minimizing political interference.

The current structure of three separate service boards running the CTA, Metra and Pace — with the RTA board overseeing them — is the result of another political battle that led to a 1983 reorganization. It is widely regarded as an inefficient Rube Goldberg contraption and an invitation to tunnel vision and turf wars. Although the extra board seats are handy for politicians as political plums, we don’t need so many. But Quinn’s reported suggestion this week that none of the transit board members should be paid goes too far. If we want competent people to put in their time, they should be compensated.

Our transit governance was called into question when Metra CEO Alex Clifford resigned in June. Clifford said he was forced out because he rejected patronage and contract demands, allegations two inspectors general are investigating. Five Metra board members have resigned since then, leaving the 11-member board at a bare quorum and unable to hire a new CEO, which requires eight votes.

The first thing that should happen is that the remaining board members should be swiftly replaced with an interim board, an idea suggested by DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin.

The next step is to plan for the future. If we were starting from scratch, we might do without service boards altogether, as some other cities do, but no one thinks dismantling the CTA is politically feasible. If we keep the CTA, we need a counterbalancing suburban agency to ensure transit funding fairness. But the task force should consider merging the Metra and Pace boards. That might ruffle some feathers — Metra board members are mostly appointed by county chairpersons and Pace’s board consists almost entirely of current or former mayors — but the CTA runs both rail and buses, and a single suburban agency should be able to do likewise.

We also could give the RTA more oversight authority. RTA Chairman John S. Gates Jr. wants: the right to sign off on settlement agreements of more than $50,000 and litigation costs of more $1 million; increased requirements for incoming board members; a two-year “revolving door” prohibition on ex-members engaging in business with their former transit boards; to make it easy to remove board members, and a line-item budget veto. Those are sensible suggestions.

With 2 million riders a day, the RTA is the third largest public transportation system in North America. What we need now is an overarching vision that works for the future of the entire region.

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