RTA transit card plan will have to wait

 RTA says move too costly for now


By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune transportation reporter

Date of Publication: October 30, 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune


The head of the Regional Transportation Authority on Monday said the area's three transit systems cannot do much to improve coordination between bus and train operations or provide riders with a universal fare system because the recent terrorist attacks have caused a decline in sales-tax collections while forcing the agencies to spend more money on security.

But a panel of state lawmakers, who had directed the transit agencies to develop the coordination plans three years ago, rejected those claims as little more than excuses.

Thomas McCracken Jr., chairman of the RTA, said the creation of a single fare-collection system that riders could use on the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace is a low priority and would cost "a minimum of $100 million" to get up and running.

"The events of Sept. 11 have changed much of our future outlook," McCracken told lawmakers. "Given our shrinking resources and our growing security needs, we are reluctant to embark on a full-blown fare integration project."

McCracken also questioned the wisdom of investing in more transfer points and a better integration of the services offered by the three transit agencies because only 4 percent of customers connect from one transit agency to another during their commutes.

But members of the Illinois House Public Transit Subcommittee countered that the crossover between the CTA, Metra and Pace was low--just 70,000 riders per day out of almost 2 million commuters--because the transit agencies make it inconvenient and expensive instead of seamless and enjoyable.

"The problem is that you look at that 4 percent as static. This requires a different way of looking at your task of increasing transit ridership," said state Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Chicago), the subcommittee's chairman. Hamos blasted the executives of the RTA, CTA, Pace and Metra who testified Monday for not meeting a deadline she imposed last December for showing progress on an interagency coordination plan.

The General Assembly appropriated $400,000 to the RTA in 1999 to come up with a vision of a unified transit system that would include more adjoining stations where Metra and CTA rail lines now pass each other just a block apart; more Pace service from high-volume Metra and CTA stops to serve major suburban employers; universal fare cards instead of the 21 different and confusing fare structures that currently exist; and coordinated maps, signs and bus and train timetables.

McCracken, Metra Chairman Jeffrey Ladd, CTA President Frank Kruesi and Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross on Monday mainly pointed to past efforts--some of them more than five years old--to coordinate their services. An RTA study released last spring projected a 25 percent increase in travel from 1995 to 2020 in the six-county area but said the mass transit segment will only grow 15 percent--despite worsening congestion on highways and main arterial streets.

"This ought to cause alarm for your planners," Hamos told the transit officials.

Asked by Hamos how long it would take to come up with "real recommendations," the transit officials offered no commitment.

Jacquelyne Grimshaw, a Center for Neighborhood Technology transit specialist, pointed to the "boom in ridership on New York City buses" after a regional Metrocard was created. "Twenty-six years ago, the RTA was chartered to develop a seamless transportation system," Grimshaw said. "The implementation is long overdue."

Ladd, however, said the current priorities should be keeping trains and buses running and enhancing security on transit.

Ladd also characterized connections as "of little value" in the RTA system, a remark that prompted Hamos to angrily respond, "That flies in the face of everything we are trying to do to change the system."

McCracken, meanwhile, warned that a drop in consumer spending since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has cut sales tax revenue by $11 million that the transit agencies expected to receive through August. But he acknowledged the RTA has $770 million in bonding authority, part of which could be tapped to improve the commuting experiences of the region's transit riders.