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Transit heads again ask state for funding help, reject proposals for oversight reform

A group of people in formal attire are seated at a table during a meeting or conference. They have papers, a microphone, and a water bottle in front of them. Several individuals are present in the background, attentively listening to the discussion on Chicagoland transit agencies' budget gap and state help options.
Andrew Adams
/
Capitol News Illinois
During a Senate Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday, Regional Transportation Authority Board Chair Kirk Dillard looks at the heads of Chicagoland's transit agencies: Metra CEO James Derwinski, Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter and Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger.

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 in Chicagoland as the Regional Transportation Authority – the funding body which oversees Pace suburban bus routes, Metra regional rail lines and the Chicago Transit Authority – has reported a looming “fiscal cliff” in 2026.

While the agencies are currently buoyed by pandemic-era funding and temporary allowances in state law, the agencies 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 percent of the service in northwest Illinois,” RTA Board Chair Kirk Dillard, a former state senator, said in Tuesday’s hearing.

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.

But some lawmakers in the General Assembly are unwilling to give carte blanche to the transit agencies, which have been criticized for service cuts, safety issues and poor workforce development since the early days of the pandemic.

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

He said there will be “no votes for funding” unless the general assembly and transit board first address service issues and governance reforms.

Read more: Lawmakers pitch sweeping changes to energy industry and Chicagoland transit system

Earlier this year, Villivalam proposed legislation that would consolidate the four agencies into one organization.

This was in line with recommendations that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, pitched to Villivalam and other lawmakers late last year. These recommendations were given further credence in April when the Civic Federation, an influential Chicago think tank, proposed similar reforms.

Both proposals provided options for either combining the four agencies or giving the RTA, or a new oversight agency, more authority to control regional transit policy.

But the heads of the Chicagoland 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 that she believed “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 hardly negotiated compromise between the need for accountability and the need for local control.”

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

“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 they also mostly discussed the need for reform.

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

Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, the committee’s Republican spokesperson and former RTA board member, said he agreed with Lavin’s comments around taxes.

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

But DeWitte also noted he hopes to further explore the idea of increasing state or federal funding, noting that the state contributes 17 percent 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 during discussion.

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

Transit advocates also spoke to the need for governance reform. Micheál Podgers, a policy lead with the transit advocacy organization Better Streets Chicago, said he wasn’t surprised by the agency heads’ 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 Chicagoland and in Springfield 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 told Capitol News Illinois.

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.

Andrew Adams as a state government and data reporter with Capitol News Illinois in Springfield.