Transit agency leaders push back on calls to merge Pace, CTA, Metra

Regional Transportation Authority Board Chair Kirk Dillard, left, looks on as he and fellow heads of Chicago-area – from second to left, Metra CEO James Derwinski, Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter and Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger – spoke during an Illinois Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams

It was standing room only in a downtown Chicago committee hearing Tuesday as activists, transit experts and lobbyists hung on the words of the region’s transit agency chiefs.

Public transit has become an increasingly contentious issue as the Regional Transportation Authority – the funding body which oversees Pace suburban bus routes, Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority – has reported a looming fiscal cliff in 2026.

While the agencies currently are buoyed by pandemic-era funding and temporary allowances in state law, they will face a cumulative annual budget gap of $730 million in operating costs beginning in 2026, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

“The preliminary analysis from our consultant shows that the fiscal cliff scenario, without state funding assistance, could wipe out 30% to 40% of the service in northwest Illinois,” RTA Board Chair Kirk Dillard, a former state senator from Hinsdale, said Tuesday.

Under that worst-case projection, the fiscal cliff would cause a $2.4 billion drop in regional GDP in the first year and impact up to 25,000 jobs.

But Dillard painted a much rosier picture if the state increases its annual support for the transit agencies: $2.5 billion annual growth in GDP and the addition of 27,000 new jobs.

“You’ve got a choice to make,” he told lawmakers Tuesday.

Sen. Ram Villivalam, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, called Tuesday’s hearing the first in what will be a series to investigate possible improvements to public transit in Illinois.

The Chicago Democrat said there will be “no votes for funding” unless the General Assembly and transit board first address service issues and governance reforms.

Illinois Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Democrat from Chicago, presides over a Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday featuring the heads of the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, Metra and Regional Transportation Authority.
Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams

Earlier this year, Villivalam proposed legislation that would consolidate the transit agencies into one organization to be called Metropolitan Mobility Authority.

But the heads of the agencies balked at the idea of major reforms on Tuesday.

“We all want to do the best job we can,” Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger told the committee. “I do not believe that combining us into one organization will make us better.”

Metzger said each agency has a board that includes local representation and “the needs of suburban areas will not be met as well as they’re met right now” if governed by a single agency.

CTA President Dorval Carter also defended the current system.

“The model that’s been set up for governance today didn’t come by by accident,” Carter said. “It was a really negotiated compromise between the need for accountability and the need for local control.”

Metra CEO James Derwinski noted that many of the improvements that transit advocates seek are a matter of funding, not oversight.

“If we adequately fund the system, the operators can do the right things,” he said.

Representatives of business groups spoke to lawmakers about transit’s economic impact, but also the need for reform.

Jack Lavin, head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, echoed Villivalam’s call to improve service and governance before providing new revenues. He called sales tax increases and congestion taxes “job and growth killers.”

Sen. Don DeWitte, the committee’s GOP spokesman and former RTA board member, said he agreed with Lavin’s comments about taxes.

“I think we need to be very careful about putting additional burdens on taxpayers or riders within the RTA system,” the Republican from St. Charles said.

DeWitte said he hopes to further explore the idea of increasing state or federal funding, noting that Illinois provides 17% of RTA’s revenues, while other states contribute significantly more to large transit systems. Philadelphia’s transit system gets half of its funding from the state of Pennsylvania, according to a CMAP analysis cited by DeWitte.

“That’s an area that I think we are woefully shy on,” DeWitte said.

Micheál Podgers, a policy lead with the transit advocacy organization Better Streets Chicago, said he isn’t surprised by the transit agency’s lack of enthusiasm for reform.

“I will say, though, I was heartened to hear that, overall, it seems they’re in favor of increasing investment in transit, even though certainly some of the more conservative speakers and conservative members of the Senate were a little bit tentative on increasing taxes,” Podgers said.

Tuesday’s hearing will be followed up with five additional hearings around in the coming weeks. The hearings, according to Villivalam, will inform some kind of proposal by lawmakers’ spring session next year.

“We definitely need to take action, I think, at least 9 to 12 months before the fiscal cliff of early 2026,” he said.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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