A task force appointed to reform the Chicago area's troubled mass transit network and transform it into a "world-class system" embarked Tuesday on what members called a daunting task aimed at ending turf wars and finding qualified people.
Gov. Pat Quinn appointed the 15-member group after weeks of controversy at Metra over the $871,000 severance package awarded to ousted CEO Alex Clifford and the allegations Clifford raised of political interference at the agency.
Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago named to the panel, said he "raised his hand" to participate because "the transit system is pretty important and it would be nice to try to do something to prevent the next scandal rather than read about it."
Quinn asked the group to develop ways to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse at the CTA, Metra and Pace, as well as the oversight agency, the Regional Transportation Authority, and to streamline overall system operations.
Meeting for their first session, the members acknowledged they face a challenge making an Oct. 18 deadline for an interim report on their findings to be submitted to the General Assembly. A final set of recommendations is due Jan. 31.
"The scandals that have been plaguing Metra and its board of directors have brought us here today," Quinn said.
But task force members said their broader goal is to find ways to overhaul the entire system. Critics say there is too little RTA oversight, and that the three separate transit agencies battle each other for an ever-dwindling share of state and federal dollars and jealously guard their political turf.
Task force co-chair Ann Schneider, Illinois Department of Transportation secretary, said the panelists will form working groups to tackle four areas for reforms: ethics, system performance, finance and governance.
"We do have a big task in front of us, but I do think, given the membership of this task force, that they're up to it and I look forward to preparing those recommendations and moving them along," Schneider said.
Echoing Quinn, Schneider said Chicagoans are entitled to have a "world-class" transit system.
The panel will hold public sessions and encourage comments via a website http://www.dot.il.gov/nepublictransit.html, officials said.
Co-chair George Ranney, CEO of the civic group Metropolis Strategies, said oversight of the transit agencies was ripe for change. The RTA and the three transit boards have a total of 47 board members appointed by 16 public officials, mainly county board chairmen and the mayor of Chicago.
"The problem is, we haven't been asking our public officials who appoint the people to these jobs to name people who are up to the task," Ranney said. "We're saying, 'Change that. … Let's get good people into those jobs.'"
The task force members come from a variety of backgrounds, including education, labor and transportation. The marquee name on the panel is Fitzgerald's. Schneider said she hoped Fitzgerald would oversee the working group on ethics.
"If you're a rider or taxpayer, I don't think you can read the headlines and feel comfortable" with the transit system, Fitzgerald said.
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