State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston made the case this afternoon for a dramatic restructuring of control over public mass transit in the Chicago region.

The transportation policy talk was the the fifth of six discussions in “critical issues” seris Biss is holding at the Levy Center, 300 Dodge Ave. Biss said his interest in the transit issue stemmed from a scandal that led to an exodus of top officials at Metra this summer.

Biss began his discussion emphasizing Chicago’s transportation history and its role as a transit hub nationwide. But he also emphasized the problems currently plaguing the four government appointed boards tasked with overseeing the area’s various modes of transit, and the need for reform.

The four government boards that currently oversee regional transportation include the Regional Transportation Authority, Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra, each with their own chair and a total of 47 board members collectively, although the four agencies are “mostly independent” of one another, Biss said.

The current system makes it “hard for anyone to follow or investigate [the boards] and they tend to act as if they operate under the cover of darkness,” he said. Additionally, the complexity of each governing body leads to “administrative duplication, and administrative duplication leads to cost and inefficiency.”

Biss proposed that, instead of having four separate boards, streamline the system to create one single, unified regional transit authority with one board, one chair and 19 board members appointed by the governor.

And to oversee the new RTA board, Biss proposed a regional transit council be established, which would include 13 members appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, the Cook County Board of Commissioners and Collar County Board leader. All RTA board members would then be approved, with a super majority, by the regional transit council.

Below both Biss’ proposed RTA and regional transit council would be five transit divisions: commuter rail, rapid transit — which would include CTA services — a bus committee and paratransit committee.

Biss acknowledged that the transportation issues that face Chicagoans may not be those that affect suburban commuters, which could lead to tension within the unified body.

But, he said, “that tension isn’t something you should pretend away or something you should wish away, that tension is democracy.”

If such a proposal were to be implemented successfully, Biss said it would result in economic development around transit nodes, increased property values near transit nodes, increased ridership and more efficient spending which could lead to more government investment in mass transit.

And to the couple dozen people in attendance, Biss said if they took away anything from the day’s discussion, he hoped it would be the immense importance of mass transit to society as a whole, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

The issue is not one solely for “limousine liberals” or “hipsters with creative facial hair” to debate, he said, but rather something that affects people across a vast socioeconomic range.

In addition to the potential benefits increased investment in mass transit may have in reducing green house emissions, fostering economic development and bringing people together in a positive way, it may also be a “tool to lift into the middle class those who are currently in our society suffering from the most extreme economic problems,” he said.

One audience member wondered where Biss could take his proposal from here.

“A number of external entities” are currently studying how to reform the current transportation model, Biss said.

He said he hopes his “radical” proposal would be “helpful to the discussion” and that some of its principles would be incorporated into whatever the Illinois General Assembly ultimately decides to do. 

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1 Comment

  1. Great Idea

    The haphazard, fragmented transit sytems that supposedly serve the Chicago area need to be made to work in a way and at times that serve the entire region.  The disconnect in service times and pricing between Metra and CTA is a disgrace and an impairment to economic growth.

    Good luck, Biss.  This is such a great idea that it will almost certainly be opposed by others in both parties.  Don't give up.  This is the type of voter-friendly thinking that can make a big difference

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