Chicago Goes Regional:
The RTA is Created (1974)


The reorganization of Chicago's transit system following World War II worked for a number of years. The public Chicago Transit Authority seemed to be able to do what the private CRT and CSL couldn't: modify routes, modernize equipment, and rejuvenate the public image. And the commuter railroads never saw the loss in riders and revenue of the urban transit systems, due in part to their national intercity services that could help defray their costs.

But by 1970, the bright veneer began to wear off the postwar transit industry.

Despite some economy moves made by the CTA in the 1950s, there were no solid efforts made to control costs. The (often correct) belief that increasing fares would accelerate the decline in ridership left the CTA no choice but to begin to defer maintenance in some areas. By the end of the 1960s, the CTA was beginning to have trouble covering its bonded indebtedness despite three fare increases. The construction of the Dan Ryan and Kennedy rapid transit lines in 1969-70, though they increased ridership by 2.5%, were disastrous to the CTA's bottom line and further stressed an agency already under enormous financial stress. For the first time in its history, revenue from fares ($174.9 million) failed to cover operating costs ($179.1 million).

All things being equal, the CTA might have survived on its farebox revenues had it not been the victim of forces beyond its control. Although no one can deny that the CTA had trouble containing costs, out migration of population and jobs to the suburbs and blight in inner urban areas cost the CTA millions of the commuters who had previously used their services.

Besides these financial troubles, 1970 marked a few other important turning points. For one, the decennial census showed that Chicago's suburbs had surpassed the city in population, making it a third political body to be dealt with in state funding negotiations. It was also the year that the Illinois state constitution was revised at a Constitutional Convention. A new clause was added stating that public funds could now be used to subsidized private transit carriers, a boon for the commuter railways in and around Chicago.

Governor Ogilvie persuaded the state legislature to include $200 million in capital grants for mass transit in his $900 million state transportation bond issue after the 1970 Constitutional Convention. With a new source of income, government turned its attention to the problems of administration and cost control. Ogilvie appointed a task force to investigate and, as expected, they returned with a recommendation for a six-county regional transit authority. By use of a special taxing district, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) could support each transit system in the Chicago area as it saw fit.



1975 map

The RTA Comes Into Being

To avoid allowing the suburbs to completely control urban transit issues, the Chicago Transit Authority was left intact. The RTA's power over the CTA was limited to budgetary oversight and some planning. The RTA was, however, allowed to cross-subsidize the CTA from the suburbs.

The March 19, 1974 referendum creating the RTA clearly showed the widening political rift between the city and the suburbs. The issue was carried by less than 1% of the vote, largely on its 71% majority in Chicago. Suburban Will, Kane, and McHenry Counties showed 9 in 10 voters opposed to the RTA.

It would seem in some ways that the Chicago political machine won again, with a new source of funding for their ailing transit system. But the suburbs quickly turned the RTA into a political battleground. While the city moved to retain control of the CTA, the suburbs attempted to minimize the cross-subsidies to the city. Though the RTA was not completely immobilized by the struggle, it did severely limit the new agency's effectiveness over the next few years.

One important aspect of the RTA is that it was not simply the oversight and planning agency it is today. The RTA was originally empowered as an operating agency as well, and indeed did begin to operate a number of suburban bus and commuter rail lines.

RTA Web Site