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Can the CTA and Metra Play Nice?

Chicago Reader

For decades transit experts and advocates have pushed for a much cheaper, quicker solution to bring rapid transit to the far south side of Chicago. The Metra Electric District route, aka the Electric Line, runs more or less parallel to the Red Line and makes eight stops within Roseland, Pullman, and other neighborhoods that would be served by the four extension stations, which are planned near 103rd, 111th, Michigan at 115th, and 130th Streets. Currently the Electric Line runs sporadically during nonrush periods. Running it more frequently, offering, say, 24-hour service at 15-minute intervals, and integrating its fare system with the CTA could likely be done at a fraction of the cost of a Red Line extension.

It could also be done a lot more quickly. The proposed Red Line project involves acquiring about 150 properties and building elevated tracks and stations. According to the CTA, it won't be fully operational until 2026 at the earliest, and work won't begin until 2022. The Electric Line conversion, which would only require retrofitting existing infrastructure, could almost certainly be completed sooner.

It's too bad the CTA and Metra don't play well together. It's not just that the CTA primarily serves the city, Metra the suburbs. Like the RTA and Pace, each of these transit agencies has its own board of directors—Emanuel appoints the majority of CTA board members, while most of the Metra directors are chosen by politicians from Republican-controlled suburban county boards. On top of that, the CTA and Metra compete with each other for funding and ridership.

"There are well-documented and systemic governance and financing problems that make the lack of cooperation between transit agencies predictable," said Active Transportation Alliance executive director Ron Burke. "From the slow journey to a universal fare card, to funding decisions not tied to a strategic transit vision for the region, to the inability to convert the Metra Electric into a CTA-style service in Chicago, these shortcomings are a function of systemic problems."

Center for Neighborhood Technology Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Scott Bernstein noted that the CTA and Metra still vie with each other for infrastructure grants from the Federal Transit Administration. "They don't lobby together and they don't put in joint applications, so in what way could you say that they aren't competing in that regard?"

Bernstein said he'd also like to see the RTA, the CTA, and Metra, which each have separate programs for promoting transit-oriented development, work together on this front, something that could not only save money but potentially attract more private-sector investments.

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