Ideas for fixing public transit start with more RTA power, control

CTA President Forrest Claypool has completed two-plus weeks on his new job. I heard he’ll be in Washington, D.C., this week to talk about CTA capital funding needs for new projects such as the Red Line extension and for basic maintenance for the rail lines.

Sounds like the perfect time to restart the conversation on ideas to fix public transit. For today’s edition, I shamelessly reprint the “recipe” of a longtime transit watcher and former RTA spokesperson, Chris Robling. Given his former job, his ideas are rather RTA-centric. But I agree with many of them – especially the overall theme that there should be better coordination and oversight by the agency that calls itself the Regional Transportation Authority.

I first came across Robling’s ideas at the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s panel discussion on Chicago transit. He was one of the panelists. See Robling’s bio at the end of the post. Now read and discuss his ideas.

“Recipe for Better Chi-town Transit”
By Chris Robling

1. Make the RTA a real RTA – consolidate the Tollway, IDOT Division 1, the Dept. of Aviation, the Illinois International Port District/Port of Chicago, etc., into the RTA.

2. Fold Pace into Metra.

3. Give the RTA hire / fire over all service board executive directors.

Robling and Bey at panel discussion.jpg

Panelists Christopher Robling (left) and Lee Bey discuss the future of public transit at a Chicago Architecture Foundation forum in April. (Photo by Austin B. Smith/Medill Reports)

4. Adopt the following new RTA mission statement:

“We, the new
RTA, are her to put service on the street. Transportation is
Chicagoland’s first advantage. We will exploit it to thr n-th degree. We
will do so in transit, commercial aviation, shipping and surface
transportation at the least possible cost for the greatest possible
benefit for the region, economy and economic future all of us, and our
kids, share. Let’s get moving.”

5. Adopt stringent management standard for all service boards.

6. Fire errant agency chiefs whenever needed. Preferably at dawn in Grant Park with the media present.

7. Amalgamate revenues and capital needs. Plan accordingly.

8. Advocate capital source. Take harsh measures ’till the General Assembly acts.

9. Try like heck to keep up with the growing regions of the world.

Bio of Robling via Medill Reports:

Robling, a principal at Jayne Thompson & Associates and a longtime
transit commentator. He first got involved in transportation in the
1980s and later spent five years as the director of communications for
the RTA. In 2007 he was appointed to the Suburban Transportation
Commission by former U.S. Reps. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, and Congresswoman
Melissa Bean, D-Barrington.


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  • Most of this shows that he is a former RTA guy who can't figure out that the RTA is the problem. At least you sort of acknowledge that.

    Put the Tollway, etc. under the RTA. Is he going to keep the existing boards, because DuPage County needs its Republican patronage? It sure seems so, as he his talking about merging Pace with Metra, even though the train guys don't want to run a bus system. Of course, NOTHING ABOUT MERGING CTA and abolishing the service boards.

    Give RTA hire/fire. Like the RTA was going to find out about Pagano. Like the RTA was going to block the rubber stamping of Claypool.

    Mission statements: Mean nothing. This one sounds like it was concepted by the journalism prof. (especially if he really said "are her," unless he is a Taiwanese web blogger, since the proper legal term is "him or her"). Also, if the focus is on the street, forget Metra and the airport. In short, he abortifacted.

    The rest are tolerable, but "advocating" before the General Assembly, which also has become totally dysfunctional got us stuff like the unconstitutional capital bill.

  • In reply to jack:

    He works for Jayne Thompson's flack company.
    That's reason enough to ignore anything he says.
    This is really all from Jim Thompson who wants to reward his corrupt buddies with more pinstripe patronage.

  • In reply to jack:


    Do you have a plan (or even some ideas)? I'm not trying to be an ass - more just curious since you seem to shoot down everything others suggest.

    I figured this plan would be more in line with your thinking, so was surprised that you immediately dismissed it.

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    I told you before what my plan was:

    ABOLISH ALL FOUR BOARDS, and have something like the NY MTA, with one board, properly apportioned, composed of people actually interested in running transit, instead of political hacks interested in collecting the $25,000 salary.

    There would also have to be some enforceable means of making sure that they were people with business expertise, instead of flouting the MTA Act requirement. Also, instead of rubber stamping their appointing authority, make sure that they make the policy decisions on such things as service coordination, instead of conditioning an inquiry (just an inquiry, not a solution) on 9 members concurring.

    Heck, even Cicero spokesperson Ray Hannina, while having some completely crazy ideas, like a 250 member county board, figured this one out.

    So, AB instead of proving that you are of bad memory, why don't you tell us how you would fix this mess. And don't tell me it is to give Emanuel appointment authority over Pace. I'll even give you a pass that the dysfunctional general assembly won't pass meaningful reform.

    So, the ball's in your court, AB.

  • In reply to jack:

    I agree, one service board, two divisions one rail one bus.

  • In reply to jack:

    Calm down there, jack. We just had a holiday weekend - you should be more relaxed. Like I said, I was just curious about how your plan differed from this (since he seems to be pro-consolidation as well).

    I get it now, he's not consolidating enough. I think more consolidation would be great idea, and I have no problem with abolishing the different boards.

    My biggest issues with your gripes are that they always seem to focus on firing management instead of looking forward for actual transit improvements. Now you might have a point that the latter can't be done right/efficiently without the former, but I'm interested in discussing improvements in service as well. Ultimately that should be the goal, right?

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    The goal should be that whatever service is run efficiently. As I pointed out in my reply to Mike, there was an Auditor General report on how transit governance should be reformed, but the General Assembly perverticated (another prof's term) it in the 2008 bill.

    Maybe you can define what you mean as "transit improvements," but I think we agree that without improvements in the governance structure, they aren't going to be real. Also, I am not in favor of firing management, per se; I am against a governance structure that doesn't govern, and the attitude expressed by various Tattler commentators that no one is accountable.

  • In reply to jack:

    Again, I agree with you that reforming the governance structure is a high priority, and likely necessary to have a functioning system in the future.

    To your other comments, the SOLE goal should not be an efficient service. Efficiency is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Particularly since you're talking about management efficiency and not economic efficiency, you're missing the big picture (remember though, I agree this is a critical part of improving transit in Chicago, so don't flip out again).

    "Transit improvements" would be moving more people, more quickly and comfortably, to more places throughout Chicago (and doing so efficiently and cost-effectively). It would be repairing slow zones and reducing wait times. It would be refurbishing crumbling L lines before they collapse. And it would be extending rail, bus and BRT service throughout the city to provide better, more reliable service to more of the city's residents. That's ultimately the goal of public transit - moving people efficiently in a dense urban environment.

    I know the funds aren't there right now, but this should be the goal at all times.

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    Well, fine, but so long as the administration gets away with blowing $51 million at a time, and lying about projects like the 2005 Dan Ryan one, it is not going to happen.

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    Wait, the RTA is something more then a sticker on a portion of the transit system in the Chicagoland area? I mean seriously though. They don't exactly have a good presence amongst the transit infrastructure. Heck, I had someone ask me what the A stood for in CTA today. (facepalm)

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    Thank you for posting my two cents.

    As I said at the CAF event, my proposal learns from New York MTA, which can fire the head of MetroNorth, for instance, if s/he does not perform.

    Not so our regional agency, RTA.

    The lack of hire/fire over service board CEOs has led to the excesses of Kruesi, the graft of Pagano and the errancy of diJohn.

    We cannot "want" more regionalism but shy away from steps to empower the region.

    As for RTA -- it is in a tough spot, as usual, because it serves as a middle-person between funding sources and service boards with only two weapons: the press release and the nuclear option.

    The "press release" is moral suasion. Not strong. Try using moral suasion on a CTA chief who repeats 30 times a day that he is the Mayor's guy... and you have an idea of why the press release is too weak to be effective. (And why $300 million of our scarce transit dollars have been consigned to a basement on Washington Street.)

    The "nuclear option" is RTA declaring a budget variance against a particular service board, such that RTA may legally end the flow of non-system operating revenue(s) to that board [DISCLAIMER: I am not certain of the status of this weapon after the recent "reforms"].

    Traditionally, this was unpersuasive because no one thought RTA would hobble a service board. So RTA and its weapon it lacked credibility. Service boards would then act with almost complete impunity.

    And note, it requires serious deviancy from an established budget. It required a finding of an actual fiscal problem. Fair enough, but a) by then it is too late, and b) what about all of the non-budget service board shennanigans that thwart co-ordination and rationalization of the system's service offer? If hardly credible in a budget crisis, the nuclear option is inapplicable in cases of willful disruption of regional planning.

    Greater regional co-ordination, etc., will take place only when the institutions -- and their leadership -- are aligned in that direction. My hire/fire proposal is one step in the right direction.

    So, concentrating policy-making, regional planning, financial oversight and marketing together at the RTA level is a major step for the riders and taxpayers, which means it will benefit the business and shippers as well. We simply can no longer afford each service board to act like a separate barony, regardless of which political pooh-bahs support it.

    Thanks again, c.

  • In reply to ChrisRobling:

    As I believe I made clear, we don't need the four baronies.

    However, Robling, where were you when the farce of the 2008 bill was being formulated and the "reform proposals" were gutted by the General Assembly?

    Also, do you concur that, as in 1983, this RTA needs to be abolished, so that prior dead weight ideas are purged? This is because none of the current crew would have the balls to fire Kruesi or Pagano, or currently to tell Emanuel that the CTA Presidency is not his political toy, and the CTA Board is now continually violating its enabling act.

    I think not.

  • In reply to ChrisRobling:

    I have just managed to arrange a joint meeting with the FTA and RTA Legal Depts. to discuss where (or if) to go with my Title IV Civil Rights Complaint against Transit Capital Funds being unevenly distributed among Chicago area Communities.

    The Red Line Extension is an incompetent WASTE of taxpayer dollars:

    And NOBODY has ANY plans for serving the South Lakefront Corridor (although CDOT did recently institute an ongoing Corridor Transit Study of the area):

    But that doesn't guarantee any Project implementation by the concerned Agencies (thus continuing the Complaint).

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    There should be one transit agency in charge of all public transit for the region. It shouldn't be the RTA in its current incarnation, and I don't think including highways in it is necessary.

  • In reply to aaronjbrown:

    I have come to the conclusion that the present Service Boards have NO plans whatsoever of any kind, to try for ANY type of Regional Coordination.

    I am very soon going to enlist Rep. Jack Franks and Sen. Susan Garrett who are HOT to dissolve all the Service Boards already.

    If it could be documented how the present Service Boards have wasted Billions of Taxpayer Dollars over the past decade, maybe it would push Jack and Susan's efforts over the top

    Waste = CTA and Metra operating extensive competing parallel and adjacent services on Chicago's South Side.

  • In reply to mikep621:

    "I am very soon going to enlist Rep. Jack Franks and Sen. Susan Garrett who are HOT to dissolve all the Service Boards already."

    Mike, if you actually get something from either of them, best to you. However, I've dealt with Garrett before.

    You have your waste, I have mine.

    CTA/Pace, competing for the same bus passengers in such areas as Evanston, Oak Park, or Cermak between 54th and North Riverside. That basically results in Pace retreating, and making service even more inconvenient to riders in outlying areas, while the Auditor General said that the lowest cost carrier should cover the territory.

    CTA waste alone: $51 million on the undepreciated portion of the NABIs, $51 million in fuel hedges in 2009, and $300 million for a hole under Block 37, for starters (is Daley's maglev now supposed to be on the NCS corridor?).

    Lack of central planning, such as the Red Line extension and Metra SES in the same corridor. At least the stations are not supposed to overlap, but there is no indication that the CN will let either use its right of way. Proposing a locally preferred alternative to the Yellow Line extensions, that the locals didn't prefer.

    I got it up to about half a billion, but others could come up with more. However, others say that I am a naysayer. I also see that someone else didn't post his transit plan yet. At least you did.

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