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Our View: Reforming the region's transportation

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

“Bureaucratic Frankenstein” is a pretty apt description of the boards that govern public transportation in the Chicago region.

It was used last month by Bill Daley, who is running for the 2014 Democratic nomination for governor, to describe the Regional Transportation Authority. He alleges the agency spends $33 million a year but does little. The RTA has financial oversight of the region’s three transit agencies – Metra, Pace bus and Chicago Transit Authority.

Metra makes headlines almost daily: Ousted CEO Alex Clifford – who left with $718,000 separation agreement – has alleged he was forced out because he would not turn a blind eye to patronage requests, some of which lead up to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan. The scandal has caused four board members – including the chairman – to quit.

It’s embarrassing, although not surprising, to again see another example of the dysfunction that is Illinois politics so prominently on display.

There have been several proposals on how to reform Metra, such as restructuring it, moving it under the governor’s control, and abolishing the RTA.

We have another suggestion: create one board that oversees all public transportation in the region.

The RTA, created in 1974, is the third-largest public transportation system in North America and provides more than 2 million rides a day on the 7,200 route miles in a six-county region, according to its website.

It has financial and budget oversight for the three service boards – CTA, Metra and Pace. CTA, Metra and Pace boards determine levels of service, fares and operational policies for their respective agencies.

This being Illinois, these board members are, of course, annually compensated. The RTA is governed by a 15-member board and a chairman, who each makes $25,000. The seven CTA board members make $20,000 each, and the 11 Metra board members get $15,000 each. The 12 members of Pace get $10,000 each.

If each has a full board, that’s $825,000 in taxpayer money annually spent on their salaries. They also get taxpayer-funded health care, deferred compensation, life insurance and retirement benefits, although Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed a bill into law that strips those from future members of all four boards.

It makes more sense to have one agency set priorities and oversee all public transportation needs for the Chicago region. Each of the six counties in the region would have a representative on the board – selected through a popular vote every two years by the residents of each respective county, so officeholders are accountable directly to taxpayers. Cook County can have three elected members.

The existing board structure is bloated bureaucracy, and it does not best serve the needs of the public. It’s time for a radical change.

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