New from @Daniel Biss: Transit Governance for the Chicago Region

PacebusNOTE: This post originally appeared on Senator Biss' website.

Transportation is a major ingredient in our region's economic and cultural vitality. From the days of Chicago's founding and early growth which were dependent upon our access to waterways, to its rapid industrialization which had everything to do with the layout of the national network of railroads, and continuing into our modern era focus on highways and airports, a robust transportation network enabled this area to thrive, and has often shaped the successes (and struggles) of our region.

As with any large, complex, diverse metropolitan area, intraregional transportation is also essential for our well-being. The many millions of people who live and work in the Chicagoland area rely on a sophisticated network of roadways, buses, commuter trains, subways, intercity rail lines, and more to facilitate their daily lives. But too seldom do we find ourselves willing or able to implement innovative ideas for a more usable, efficient, and comprehensive system.

That's why for now, I'd like to focus on one aspect of our transit system: the way we govern and administer our regional mass transit network organized under the Regional Transit Authority. The RTA is an agency that has some oversight over three other entities, the Chicago Transit Authority, the commuter rail system Metra, and the suburban bus service Pace.

These four entities have a total of 47 board members appointed by a dizzying variety of local elected officials. Moreover, the service boards themselves have responsibilities that interact in peculiar ways: for instance, Pace runs a suburban fixed-route bus network as well as a paratransit system, and CTA runs a bus system in Chicago as well as the "L" train system. It's clear that the CTA and Pace bus systems have a lot in common and would benefit from more straightforward coordination.

Speaking of coordination, there are numerous ways in which all the transit agencies should be working more closely together. From route schedules to fare structures to capital investment to the much-discussed plan to create a universal farecard, transit riders would benefit if the system were more fully integrated.

This leaves us asking: is the current structure the best way to run an integrated, efficient, world class transit system? In a word, the answer is no.

That's why my office spent the summer and fall of 2013 studying the question of transit governance with an eye toward overhauling and modernizing the structure of our systems. After a significant amount of study, we produced a report that you can read here.

I hope you'll consider reading the report in full, but the basic conclusions regarding transit governance are simple:

  • In order to maximize coordination, strategic regional planning and administrative efficiency, there should be a single independent transit agency: a newly reconstituted RTA.
  • This new RTA should have internal divisions, but instead of retaining the artificial categories of CTA, Metra, and Pace, they should instead correspond to bus, commuter rail, rapid transit, and paratransit. In other words, these internal divisions will reflect transit modes rather than political boundaries.
  • The RTA board members should be appointed by the Governor, since they should all bring a regional perspective to their work. However, the board members should come from specifically chosen geographic jurisdictions, and the political leaders elected by those jurisdictions must have the power to approve or reject the Governor's appointments.

This last point is very important -- the current system was designed to give local elected officials a tremendous amount of control by enabling them to appoint various board members. This is in principle a good thing: after all, different sections of the region have different needs and priorities, and it is completely necessary that all these points of view have a seat at the table.

However, the current system creates a number of different silos and then pits them against one another, instead of insisting that the various geographical jurisdictions battle it out in a single system that can then move forward in the best interests of the whole region. Having a single board with gubernatorial appointees who are selected and approved via a mechanism that ensures local input is, in my opinion, the best way to strike this balance.

The summer of 2013 saw a significant increase in interest in transit governance, largely because of some high-profile events that shed a spotlight on our transit agencies. In response, Governor Quinn created the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force to make recommendations for how to best reform these systems. The task force has been diligently meeting since September and is preparing to release its final report in a matter of days.

From all indications, the task force appears to be preparing to issue a sweeping recommendation for transit governance reform not dissimilar to the changes we called for in our report. The task force has signaled this both by releasing these two documents and also in this Chicago Tribune article. While this information leaves out many details, and time will tell exactly how the task force handles these details, a few things are already clear.

First of all, the task force is grappling with fundamental issues of transit governance reform rather than nibbling around the edges. They are to be congratulated for diving into this difficult and controversial task; many others have begun to wade into this topic only to pull back because the political pressures were too strong, but the public deserves a fearless look at this complex question.

Secondly, it is inevitable that real reform will be difficult to achieve. One of the consequences of a system with innumerable appointing authorities and various silos and power centers is that any proposed change will be met with strong resistance. What's more, local elected officials have every reason to try to hold on to the current system -- they rightfully fear that an overhaul would dilute their influence and leave their constituents inadequately represented at the table where transit resource allocation decisions are made.

Finally, and most importantly, a carefully designed, thoughtful reform package, while challenging and controversial, should not be viewed as an impossibility. Many will be instinctively resistant, but there is a path to enact a plan that retains the ability of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the five collar counties to exert the level of control that they and their residents have every right to demand, while breaking down bureaucratic barriers and facilitating coordination and regional planning.

Mass transit in the Chicago region has struggled with imperfect governance for many decades now. We have before us an opportunity to enact bold reforms and fix the system in order to create a more functional and efficient system for our communities. This will not be easy, but there has never been a better opportunity, and the residents of our region cannot afford to wait another generation. Let's seize the moment and get this done.

Sen. Jacqueline Y. Collins

Deputy Majority Caucus Chair
16th Senate District

Years served:
2003 - Present

Committee assignments: Financial Institutions (Chairperson); Insurance; Transportation; Subcommittee on Capital (TR).

Biography: Born in McComb, Miss.; grew up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Studied journalism at Northwestern University and graduated from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Divinity Schoool. Emmy Award-nominated news editor at CBS-TV in Chicago and 2001 Legislative Fellow with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Recipient in 2011 of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Financial Literacy Leadership from the Illinois state treasurer.

Associated Representatives:
Mary E. Flowers
André Thapedi