Boston’s MBTA consolidates the entire region’s transit network, but that hasn’t spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno
If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area — or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station — the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.
Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. “It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.
In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA’s ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to “chronic underinvestment” in Chicago’s transit network.
The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies — disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.
The RTA doesn’t coordinate or steer Chicago’s transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. “The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals,” reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.
Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is “shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.
Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.
Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on: