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RTA director addresses County Board in wake of scathing report

Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 11:44 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 10:50 p.m. CDT

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WOODSTOCK – The interim head of the Regional Transportation Authority said the agency "stands ready to work with Springfield" in the wake of a task force's scathing report on the state of Chicago-area mass transit.

Acting Executive Director Leanne Redden made the comments during a presentation at a County Board meeting Tuesday, the day after the release of the report by a task force convened last year by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Among the recommendations in the 95-page report by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force is that the service boards of Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority be merged into one entity. The RTA, the umbrella board that has financial oversight of the others, should be eliminated altogether, according to the task force.

“The northeastern Illinois region will not have a transit system that is anywhere close to world-class by clinging to the status quo,” the report concludes. “If too many are preoccupied with defending the turf of multiple boards and a wasteful and often dysfunctional bureaucracy, it will lead to the decline of the transit system and drag down our economy. “

Redden limited her remarks about the report, stating that the RTA was still in the process of reading it. But she told County Board members that the RTA is open to reform ideas, and stated that several bills that have gone to the General Assembly were inspired by RTA recommendations.

“It’s my personal goal to make RTA the good, reliable system I think we can be,” said Redden, who took over March 1 as the authority’s acting director.

Quinn created the 15-member committee last August to suggest reforms in the wake of yet another high-profile scandal at Metra, which runs suburban commuter rail.

In almost an underscore of the need for reform, a fifth Metra Board member stepped down hours after Quinn signed the executive order creating the task force in the wake of allegations that the board paid its former CEO up to $718,000 in “hush money” to keep him from going public with allegations of political patronage hiring.

The Metra Board in 2013 approved a generous exit package for new CEO Alex Clifford, with eight months remaining on his first contract. When pressed by angry state lawmakers, Clifford alleged he was forced out because he would not play along with patronage requests.

Clifford had been hired to help clean up Metra in the wake of the scandal surrounding former CEO Phil Pagano, who killed himself in 2010 near his rural Crystal Lake home by stepping in front of a Metra train hours before the Metra Board was set to fire him for collecting $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts and other fiscal irregularities.

Pagano, who it turns out was supporting two other households besides his own, borrowed so much against his executive compensation package that he died owing Metra at least $127,000.

The task force’s report concludes that Chicago mass transit is a system hit by “one scandal after another” over “patronage, financial impropriety, hidden conflicts of interest, and inappropriate influence over contracts.”

In one example cited by the report, Metra maintained three boxes of more than 800 index cards of people referred for jobs, promotions or raises by public officials and political influencers.

One reason for the lax oversight - and one of the justifications in the report for abolishing the RTA - is that state lawmakers intentionally weakened the RTA’s oversight powers in 1983 and made Metra, Pace and CTA largely autonomous, independent authorities. A 2008 attempt to strengthen them in the wake of a financial crisis and declining ridership did not go far enough, the report states.

The report recommends a 21-member board to oversee Metra, Pace and the CTA. Five each would be appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, the Cook County Board president with the consent of suburban commissioners, the boards of the five collar counties and the governor, who would appoint the board’s chairman.

Cook and the collar counties charge a sales tax to fund the RTA and mass transit. State lawmakers created the RTA in 1974 after area voters narrowly approved the idea in a referendum with 50.5 percent voting yes. More than 70 percent of Chicago residents supported the idea, and almost 70 percent of collar county residents opposed it.

Any changes to the mass-transit boards would have to come from state lawmakers. Merging them is likely to be a tough sell – Chicago would oppose any changes to the CTA and collar counties like McHenry would be wary of altering Metra out of fear of losing money to Chicago. However, the report’s proposed ethics reforms could have an easier time, given that several reforms have already become law in the wake of both Metra scandals.

They include making it easier to dismiss mass-transit board members, background checks and ethics training, and making board positions unpaid.

Salaries now range from $10,000 for a Pace board member to $15,000 for Metra to $25,000 for RTA and CTA members. Those positions also came with pension and insurance benefits, which have been stripped for future members under a law pushed through Springfield by local state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo.

The sterling reputation of one of the task force's members also could help move along reform efforts. Among Quinn's appointees was former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who led the Operation Safe Road and Operation Board Games investigations that led to the imprisonment of former Republican Gov. George Ryan and Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

On the Net You can read the final report of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force at www.dot.il.gov/nepublictransit.html.

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