Without a new chair, RTA is in disarray and ineffective

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By ELIZABETH WOLGEMUTH, Medill News Service

As the CTA warns of doomsday service cuts, the agency's parent organization, the Regional Transportation Authority, rides on without a board chairman and without the political power necessary for changes, experts say.

The 12-member RTA board has lacked a chair for the last 10 months as the Illinois General Assembly evaluates the funding formula for the RTA's member agencies " CTA, Metra and Pace " and the structure of the RTA itself.

The RTA's last chairman, Thomas McCracken Jr., left last June, just as the CTA was beginning to sound its budgetary warning bell.

As a result of the vacancy, the RTA has had a quieter voice at a time when the region's transit system needs it the most.

"It would be nice to have a chair out there representing us to the legislature," said Scott McPherson, the RTA's acting communications director.

The RTA is primarily responsible for overseeing the budgets and coordinating the operations of the three agencies that make up North America's second-largest transit system. However, the legislature's Special Committee on Mass Transit for Northeastern Illinois has been looking at the RTA's organization and may recommend an overhaul.

McPherson said a few people have contemplated being chairman, but most are waiting to see what the legislature decides. He said the chair must secure the bipartisan support of Mayor Daley, Governor Blagojevich and U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert of Yorkville, who share oversight of the RTA board but answer to different constituencies.

McPherson said the part-time position pays $25,000 a year and requires transportation experience.

For the last six months, members of the Illinois General Assembly have had the authority to appoint a chair without RTA board member approval but hasn't taken action.

"I think that the funding debate has been so much in the forefront, there hasn't been a whole lot of attention paid to it (the vacancy)," said Natashia Holmes, senior transportation associate at the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit municipal development agency.

The RTA gets 15 percent of mass-transit sales taxes in the city of Chicago, Cook County and the five collar counties, most of which ends up in a discretionary fund. In 2003, 74 percent of that money went to the CTA.

Metra hasn't had a cent of the RTA's money since 1989, according to last month's report from the mass transit committee.

Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Chicago-based Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, has openly criticized the CTA and Mayor Daley for allowing budget problems to crescendo, but said the weakness of the RTA is part of the region's problem.

"Even if there had been a chair, that person wouldn't have had political backing," Leavy said.

She said the CTA, Metra and Pace have been allowed to operate as separate "fiefdoms," operating and creating budgets without any real vision or general oversight.

"What we have is a cobbled together system of three agencies, each of which is completely paranoid about the other two," she said.

CTA President Frank Kruesi and Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano have quibbled in the press in the past, but CTA officials have recently said that "no transit service board in the region should gain at the expense of the others."

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