• Michael McDevitt
    APR 30, 2024

    State lawmakers propose Chicagoland transit agency consolidation days after Civic Federation report calls for same reform

    A CTA logo and train are pictured.

    State lawmakers are proposing to consolidate the region’s four mass transit agencies into a single entity. 

    The push comes after the Civic Federation released a report last week that calls on the state to tie future financial support for the northeastern Illinois transit agencies — the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra and Pace — to reforms of the agencies’ structure and governance, specifically their centralization into one agency. 

    The agencies are approaching an estimated $730 million deficit in 2026 following the depletion of federal COVID-19 relief funds, a cliff which represents a fifth of the overall system’s operating budget, the report states. CTA, Metra and Pace are overseen by the statewide Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). 

    State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and State Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado (D-Chicago), who sits on the House Transportation: Vehicles and Safety Committee, unveiled a bill (HB5823) Monday that would consolidate the CTA, RTA, Metra and Pace into a single Metropolitan Mobility Authority (MMA), which would “deliver coordinated, regional transit service throughout Northeastern Illinois” and would require quarterly updates on transit service from a board of directors, according to a news release. 

    The Civic Federation noted in its report that fare revenue has decreased as ridership has failed to return to a pre-pandemic level — likely due to a combination of increased remote work jobs and a growing aversion to using public transit, such as the CTA where riders continue to experience inefficient service and unclean and unsafe trains and buses. 

    While the good government group emphasizes the need to address the fiscal cliff, it is also calling for reform to the structural governance of the three agencies to crack down on the systemic problems that have let revenue remain diminished.

    “Additional funding from the State of Illinois will be critical to resolving the crisis, but financial support must be linked with structural reforms that would provide a more centralized, efficient governance system that focuses on regional challenges and leverages regional opportunities,” the Civic Federation report states.

    Decentralization is at the center of the current financial and service woes facing the transit system, Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson told The Daily Line.

    “What we have right now is multiple players who ostensibly are supposed to be conducting themselves in spirit and fact towards integration and coordination,” Ferguson said. “But as a matter of governance, they each have their own power bases. They each have their own relationships. They each have their own sort of funding streams and sources. They each have their own operational modalities.” 

    Ferguson said that dynamic extends to “balkanized” accountability mechanisms among the agencies that lack strength, uniformity and thoroughness, and he said the problem is made worse by a lack of RTA and state authority to hold the individual agencies accountable. 

    The Civic Federation evaluated two structural reform options found in the 2023 Plan of Action for Regional Transit released by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The Civic Federation expressed a preference for the option to consolidate the system into a single agency rather than to set up a regional coordinating agency but maintain the three separate CTA, Metra and Pace boards.

    “Both options, but centralization especially, would lead to a more effective utilization of transit resources, greater service coordination and improved customer service,” the Civic Federation report states. “The advantages of improved operational efficiency on a regional basis, rather than the current limited parochial basis, would outweigh the costs.”

    The proposal unveiled by Villivalam and Delgado is in line with the Civic Federation’s preference, Ferguson said. 

    “Today's announcement is the particularization of a starting point for the legislative piece,” Ferguson told The Daily Line Monday. “It doesn't attend to money. It doesn't attend to the politics … But it is completely aligned with what it was that we were elevating (last week).” 

    The state lawmakers argue that the consolidation of the four agencies into one would eliminate the competition for financial resources, avoid duplicating services and address the agencies “ignoring decades-old requirements for integrated fares,” the news release states. 

    “The status quo doesn’t work for current riders or potential new riders,” Delgado said in the news release. “Folks don’t find the current system to be reliable enough, safe enough or affordable enough. The status quo doesn’t work for taxpayers either, who are paying for duplicate bureaucracies performing overlapping functions instead of funding one agency that makes transit work better across Chicagoland. Reform must come first.” 

    Though the Civic Federation’s report states that the consolidation could take time and incur “significant” front-end costs, the benefits to a single centralized agency include more effective implementation of a regionwide transit approach, a reduction in “siloed” decision-making and redundancies and increased accountability for the public.

    Right now it is “difficult to ensure accountability to the public because of the complex, decentralized nature of transit governance, the difference in missions of each transit agency and the overlapping jurisdictions of the service boards,” the Civic Federation report states. “It is not always clear which agency has the ability or authority to plan or implement transit investments.”

    Though consulting firm Slalom has estimated a consolidation could save between $200 million to $250 million annually, the Civic Federation report also states that the cost-saving potential of consolidation “would require further analysis and significant stakeholder engagement to ensure success.” 

    Potential savings would need to be balanced against front-end costs that have yet to be fully studied, such as the potential merger of pension systems or the effect on collective bargaining agreements, Ferguson said.

    A companion bill (HB5828) would appropriate $1.5 billion from the state to the transit system beginning in July 2025.

    The Civic Federation warned that if the state pitches in funding to help address the fiscal cliff without addressing “longstanding operational and accountability problems that have plagued the transit system since its inception,” it will be simply a Band-Aid solution. The state itself also faces one of the tightest budgeting situations in years as lawmakers work to finalize the Fiscal Year 2025 budget over the next month. 

    “Money is a Band-Aid for some things, but it will drift back inevitably to the degraded, operating place that we are in right now,” Ferguson said. “We have to set the bar higher.”

    The Metropolitan Mobility Authority Act is one part of the three-pronged Clean and Equitable Transportation Act that will be introduced in Springfield this week.

    Under the bill, the governing board of the MMA is proposed to include three voting directors chosen by the governor with Senate approval, five voting directors chosen by the Chicago mayor with City Council approval, five voting directors chosen by the Cook County Board president with Board of Commissioners approval and one voting director chosen by each of the chief executives of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will Counties with approval of their legislative bodies. A chair would be chosen by the MMA directors from outside the body.  

    The MMA board would also have six non-voting members representing the Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary, the Illinois Tollway chair, a governor-appointed representative of organized labor, a board-appointed representative each from the disability and business communities and the MMA Citizens Advisory Board chair.

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