Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday accused the Regional Transportation Authority of failing to properly oversee operations at Metra, saying he will appoint a panel to come up with recommendations on how to revamp the agency amid accusations of political patronage at the commuter rail system.
"The taxpayers give the money out, but we don't have enough accountability back," Quinn said. "I really think, feel that we have to have fundamental overhaul in the whole oversight of public transportation in northeastern Illinois."
Quinn would not provide additional details about the panel but hopes it can start working soon and have recommendations by late October. He suggested that members might include Ann Schneider, who he appointed as Illinois Department of Transportation secretary, and George Ranney, the president of Metropolis Strategies who led the creation of the RTA nearly 40 years ago.
Quinn said Ranney recently was in his office lamenting the failures of the agency, which the governor said have come into focus in the past few years as the RTA remained largely "clueless" about a number of scandals. The most recent has seen four Metra board members quit as they try to explain the awarding of a $718,000 severance package to their former CEO.
Alex Clifford insists he was pushed out for refusing patronage requests made by House Speaker Michael Madigan, including asking for a raise for one of his political supporters. Madigan has said he has done nothing inappropriate and asked a legislative ethics panel to look into the matter.
On Monday, a Madigan spokesman had little to say about Quinn's proposed panel other than hoping the governor "gets some people who know something about mass transit." A spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton said he would monitor the group's development.
Last week, embattled Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran resigned, saying he no longer could lead the board because of a "media and political frenzy." O'Halloran previously called Clifford's allegations "a lot of hooey." O'Halloran was appointed to lead the Metra board as the agency tried to escape the controversy over a vacation-pay scheme involving then-boss Phil Pagano, who committed suicide by walking in front of a train in May 2010.
Before that, former Metra board member Donald Udstuen, an adviser to former Gov. George Ryan, was sent to prison on federal tax fraud charges stemming from a procurement scandal at the agency.
Quinn is no stranger to forming blue-ribbon panels to take on controversial issues, though they don't always produce the sweeping reforms the governor wants. For instance, the ethics committee he convened in the wake of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ouster was only able to win watered-down proposals after tougher measures were rebuffed by lawmakers in Springfield. Still, creating a group to take on the Metra scandal could play well in advertisements as Quinn runs for re-election next year.
Late last month, Bill Daley, Quinn's challenger, called for eliminating the RTA, saying most of its duties are duplicative with those of other agencies.
Calls to overhaul the RTA have increased in recent weeks amid questions about its limited oversight role regarding Metra's severance package to Clifford. But the RTA of today lacks the power it had originally.
Lawmakers approved creation of the RTA in December 1973 as a mass transit operating board to coordinate the operations of the Chicago Transit Authority, suburban bus companies and commuter railroads in the six-county metropolitan area. It was created amid funding shortfalls at the CTA, a decline in suburban bus operations and the exodus by private railroads from passenger rail into more lucrative freight operations. Also approved by lawmakers the same day was creation of the Illinois Lottery.
Lottery revenue was to provide about $60 million of the $80 million a year the RTA initially would take out of the state's general fund.
Ultimately, the RTA began operations in July 1974 after a March referendum, successful only because its overwhelming backing from Chicago voters overcame staunch opposition in the suburbs.
But by 1983, the RTA was in chaos after rapidly increasing fares, cutting service and serving a diminished ridership. Under a compromise between then-Gov. Jim Thompson and then-Mayor Harold Washington, the RTA was stripped of its operating powers and retained only budgetary oversight and planning duties.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun