Easing congestion and creating jobs in the Chicago area will require a transit system that works wherever people live and work, whether they call the suburbs or the city home.
Congestion is a regional issue that requires a comprehensive regional approach. The Regional Transportation Authority is the agency in charge of ensuring that approach is taken in our area. But FOX 32 News reports there are several levels of questions about how the system has been managed.
Suppose you were building a transportation system from scratch, one that would serve a population of nearly ten million people spread across 100 miles. Now imagine that transportation system would need to provide nearly two million rides a day on a combination of trains, buses and elevated lines.
Would it make more sense to have one agency directing all that traffic, or four agencies calling the shots? If you ride the Chicago Transit Authority, commuter rail line Metra or suburban bus service Pace – whose budgets are all overseen by the RTA - you may already know the answer.
"You would never construct this type of system," Steve Schlickman told FOX 32, "because it works against itself."
Schlickman calls the RTA "the four-headed monster." He led the regional transportation authority from 2005-2010, where he saw firsthand what happens when four separate chefs try to cook the transit stew.
"It defies organizational principles. It confuses accountability. It prevents seamless coordination of services," Schlickman said. "It doesn't allow us to speak with one voice when we're in pursuit of funding either at the federal or state level."
The RTA was created in the 1970's as part of a political deal engineered by Mayor Richard J. Daley to boost funding for mass transit.
The idea was to create a regional taxing district, and in return give suburban politicians a piece of the action with the eventual creation of Metra and Pace.
The RTA acts as something of a parent agency to the three transit services - but a parent without much authority or oversight. That has led to a series of problems and scandals.
"I think riders are just fed up," Former state senator Susan Garrett told FOX 32 News.
Garrett led the legislative investigation into former Metra Chief Phil Pagano, who committed suicide in 2010 by throwing himself in front of a Metra train. An investigation revealed Pagano had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeserved vacation pay.
Pagano's replacement, Alex Clifford, resigned last year after alleging he was pressured by Mike Madigan, Speaker of the Illinois House and Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, to give a raise to a politically connected employee.
In both cases, the oversight agency was in the dark.
"The RTA is set up… it reminds me of a circle. There's no oversight, There's no real authority," Garrett said. "So it makes sense that things can go wrong."
The lack of one unified agency also means that unlike other large cities, Chicago area commuters face a wide variety of fares and fare card system, including the problem-plagued Ventra card rollout on the CTA.
Then there's the $19 billion in capital repairs that are needed, with each separate agency hiring its own lobbyists to compete for the same pool of money in Springfield and Washington. All those recent cold weather delays on Metra were caused in part by frozen switches dating back to the 1930's.
"They each have their own bureaucracies," Schlickman said. "Quite frankly, they each are duplicating some purchases."
Speaking of bureaucracies, each agency has its own board of directors. There are 17 board members at the RTA, seven at the CTA, nine at Metra and 14 at Pace. That's a total of 47 board members - many of them appointed for political reasons, not for their expertise in mass transit.
RTA Board Chairman John Gates agrees the system needs to be overhauled. But he doubts there is political will in Springfield to make the needed changes.
"I don't think we could as a region reach a political consensus as to who would control that unified system and where the funding would go," Gates told FOX 32.