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Custody fight over 5-year-old RTA

THEY pushed and pulled and prodded and pumped for months, and finally in December 1973 five years ago this month the Illinois General Assembly gave birth to the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA).

The gestation period was lengthy, the labor was difficult, and when the infant arrived, he didn't look much like his suburban mother's side of the family. In fact, he bore a strong resemblance to his old man, who happened to be the mayor of Chicago.

A lot of the relatives out in the suburbs still are not very happy, but the RTA is here to stay. It has not worked miracles, but it rescued the Chicago area's public transit from chaos, and that was a big accomplishment.

The architects of the RTA are gone. Mayor Richard J. Daley is dead, Gov. Dan Walker is out of office, and none of the five legislators most responsible for the RTA is still in the General Assembly. Two of them, House Speaker W. Robert Blair and John Conolly, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, were voted out of office in 1974, and the fact that their suburban constituents didn't like the RTA was significant in their defeats. (The others were Senate President William Harris, Senate Minority Leader Cecil Partee, and House Minority Leader Clyde Choate.)

Debate goes on

There has never been much question among reasonable people that some kind of RTA was needed to coordinate public transit throughout the metropolitan area. The debate was over how it would be run, who would control it, how it would be funded and what its priorities would be. That debate continues.

The voters of suburban Cook County and the five "collar" counties DuPage, Will, Kane, McHenry and Lake in a referendum in March 1974 overwhelmingly opposed the RTA plan drafted by the legislature, but Chicago produced enough votes to pass it. Suburbanites complain that the RTA is pro-Chicago, and it is true that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) gets a lion's share of the money the authority passes out. But it also is true that the CTA carries a lion's share of the region's transit riders.

The RTA has made some effort to expand suburban bus service, but suburbanites still would rather drive their cars. "The suburban bus driver is the loneliest man in town," says one quipster.

Walker says he looks back upon establishment of the RTA with pride. "The right thing was done," he said in an interview. "It wasn't the most perfect piece of legislation, but like any forward-looking piece of legislation, it came from compromise. I think it was a good result." He said he believed the RTA board "is moving in the right direction" toward improving suburban service.

Conolly, now practicing law full-time in Waukegan, said, "Considering the politics involved, I think the RTA has done a fairly decent job. It can't be run as a dictatorship. They are trying to do the best they can."

Opponents of the RTA are divided into militants and moderates. Rep. Cal Skinner Jr. (R., McHenry) says he "won't be satisfied until the RTA is dismembered." Telling suburbanites they ought to accept the RTA "is like advising a woman who's being raped that she ought to lie back and enjoy it," he said.

Former Sen. Bill Morris (D., Waukegan), who ousted Conolly in the 1974 election, joined Skinner in several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the legislature to let suburban counties vote themselves out of the RTA's jurisdiction. Nowadays, Morris, who became mayor of Waukegan last year, is more philosophical. "We're stuck with the RTA," he said, "so those who are opposed to it should concentrate on efforts to reform it and make it realistic." Morris proposes:

A differential gas tax. At present a 5 per cent tax is imposed in all six counties; he and others suggest that the tax should be less in outlying counties which do not benefit as much from the RTA.

A provision that townships on the far edges of Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will counties be allowed to drop out of the RTA.

A requirement that sales tax revenues received by the RTA be spent in the counties from which they are collected.

There is currently such a provision for the gas tax.

Some of these things actually could come about in a few years. The balance of power in the legislature seems likely to shift from Chicago to the suburbs as a result of reapportionment on the basis of the 1980 census (see "Reapportionment begins now!" August 1978).

It sometimes seems that RTA board a members spend more time bickering with one another than addressing the major problems of public transit. But it is wishful thinking to expect city and a suburban interests of any metropolitan area to march to the same beat. There are enough suburban members on the board (four out of nine) to protect the suburbs on issues that really count.

It appears that Morris, not Skinner, now typifies the suburban opposition, and that means that the five-year-old RTA will be allowed to live. However, it might not be a bad idea for his folks to take him in for a little doctoring.

34/December 1978/Illinois Issues

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