Friday, February 9, 2007

George Ranney Ranting?

George A. Ranney, Jr., currently President and CEO of Chicago Metropolis 2020, was one of the architects of the current RTA Act. Like Helmut Jahn contemplating his Thompson Center design, Ranney appears to be looking back on his creation with some pangs of regret. Ranney has concluded that the RTA is too weak to do much good when it comes to the region's public transit system.

Metropolis 2020 issued a press statement under Ranney's name upon the release of the Moving Beyond Congestion Final Report yesterday. The thrust of the statement is that the RTA "passes money along to the three transit agencies, but it is powerless to demand
improved operations in exchange for those funds."

According to Ranney, the RTA is now but a mere "bureaucratic appendage" of the service boards--CTA, Metra and Pace. He urges that that RTA be given "the ability to direct the flow
of funds to make transit service convenient for all travelers in the region."

Ranney's assessment is that "if the state decides not to entrust the RTA with that power and provides new funding anyway, it will be wasting money on an unaccountable, uncoordinated transit system."

It is unclear what Ranney means when he says that the RTA must have "the ability to direct the flow of funds to make transit service convenient for all travelers in the region." Earlier in the statement he says that "for many, especially suburban commuters, mass transit options are so limited that there is no practical way to ride buses or trains." This would suggest that Ranney joins the suburban cadres who call for more transit service in low-density areas ill-suited to transit because of the cultural preferences and land-use decisions of these same suburbanites. After all, Ranny is a substantial suburban landowner himself, although one who to his great credit is attempting transit supportive development.

More likely, and more charitably, what Ranney really intends is something more than the sight of even more empty Pace buses rolling past the strip malls. Rather, he is urging that the RTA be given "the authority to coordinate and lead the region's three service providers -- the CTA, Metra and Pace -- to perform as an integrated regional system."

The sad truth is that the RTA already has much of the authority needed to "coordinate and lead" us to an integrated regional transit system. The RTA has the power of purse, because it gets 15 percent of the RTA sales tax receipts, including the State of Illinois 25 percent match, that it can use at its discretion. This is plenty of money for the RTA to allocate to projects that will improve and coordinate public transit service in the region. Instead, the RTA sticks to politically-expedient allocation formulas so as to not rock the boat.

The RTA also has the power of the pursestrings. It must approve the service board operating budgets and capital plans, which would give it an ample opportunity to push capital and operating dollars to uses the promote the health of the regional transit system as a whole. The RTA does not exercise this power either.

The RTA is also supposed to take the lead in obtaining state and federal capital for the system, but the RTA has given up this power as well. Ranney is thus on the mark when he describes the RTA as a "bureaucratic appendage" of the service boards.

Perhaps Ranney wants the service boards to become operating units of the RTA, just like the key transit operations are units of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York. That approach did not go well during the first few years after the RTA was created in the mid-1970s. Since this is the same RTA that failed to provide information on how people could use public transit to attend public hearings on the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative, providing detailed driving instructions instead, one wonders whether the RTA is up to the task of actually running a public transit system.

Maybe it is time for a new crew, a new organization altogether, to take this bull by the horns.

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