Behind-the-Scenes Lobbying for Agency Takeover of Chicago-area Transit

Published August 27, 2012

Urban planning activist George Ranney and the advocacy organization he heads, Metropolis Strategies, are campaigning for the seven-year-old Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to take over the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and become the new head of public transit around Chicago.

Ranney complains vaguely that declining ridership, the relationship between the RTA and transit providers, and a transit system “in danger of becoming derelict” call for the change.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Ranney and his staff have been lobbying county officials, state legislators, and Governor Pat Quinn (D). Palos Hills mayor Gerald Bennett, chairman of CMAP, professes his agency’s ignorance of the plan specifics and says his board has taken no position on the takeover. But it strains credulity that Ranney and company could be pushing the proposal with political leaders without CMAP’s tacit approval.   

Acquiring the RTA would massively boost CMAP’s budget and authority. So is the plan really the path to better transportation or just a simple power grab on the part of regional planners aided by their activist allies?

$10 Million Savings?

The RTA, a $32 million (net of pass-through funds) public agency, handles planning, funding, and oversight for public transportation in the region and has authority to approve budgets and capital plans of the providers thereof: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (commuter rail), and Pace (suburban bus service). It levies a sales tax, almost all of which is passed through to these providers. Ten members of the RTA board represent the suburbs, half of them from Cook County, with five more members representing Chicago, which is located in Cook County.

CMAP, a $15 million dollar public agency, was set up by the state government approximately seven years ago under the Blagojevich administration to prepare plans and studies for transportation, energy, water, and land use for the Chicago area. It is funded largely by the U.S. and Illinois Departments of Transportation. Ten suburban elected officials serve on its 16-member board.

CMAP is the product of a fraternal war between its predecessors, the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC). The fight was over which should be the USDOT-designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and recipient of the significant authority and federal funding support that come with the designation. The battle led to the demise of both CATS and NIPC and their replacement with a single new agency, CMAP.

Ranney claims the takeover of RTA would eliminate duplication and save $10 million a year, but the plan still raises a few questions

1.    Limited Regionalism

Regional government agencies in Chicago have heretofore been single-purpose in nature. A CMAP takeover of the RTA would create a large dual-function regional agency doing regional planning and transit management.

Chicago’s single-purpose regionalism at least in part reflects the area’s traditional resistance to multi-purpose city-suburban metropolitan government and concentration of power. Departure from this precedent may raise concerns.

2. Sales Taxes for Planning?

In a takeover, CMAP would inherit RTA’s taxing power.  Of the multiple regional planning bodies in Chicago’s past, none has ever been given taxing authority.  

There would need to be safeguards to prevent any RTA sales taxes from being diverted from provision of public transportation (as currently determined by statutory formula) into regional land use planning or other CMAP interests.

3. Two Heads Better Than One

Having two agencies, RTA and CMAP, weighing in on local transit policy offers better checks and balances than a single monolith. Currently RTA and CMAP can disagree.  Debate, negotiation, and compromise often produce better decisions.

4. New Managers or Better Management?

But most important, if RTA’s management of regional public transportation has been found wanting, it is not clear what would be accomplished by simply turning its functions over to another agency. 

Especially to be questioned is the favoring of an agency like CMAP that operates in the rarefied world of preparing paper plans for the year 2040 rather than working with operating agencies that have to put buses on streets and trains on tracks every day.  There’s a reason they’re called planners and not doers.

And unlike the dispassionate, no-nonsense engineers usually associated with transportation, planners characteristically have a left-of-center ideological agenda they apply to their work. They tend to see transit as not just transportation but also as a tool for social engineering. Planners’ biases and agenda argue against putting them in charge of an important public function like transit management. In addition, in my experience working with them for decades, I have seldom found planners to be good managers. 

The CMAP staff may be a happy exception to all of the above, but that might best be determined before the agency is handed new responsibilities outside the area of planning.

Drawing instead from the best practices of well-run businesses could be most productive in addressing Ranney’s complaint. A professional management consultant–from out of state to better assure independence–might better be hired to go over RTA and find ways it can improve operations and save money. And an expert management audit would certainly take less time and be both less costly and less risky than reshuffling agencies and dramatically and controversially reallocating public money and power.

John L. Gann, Jr., ([email protected]) is president of Gann Associates and an urban development consultant and transit fan. He is a former director of local services at the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission.