Watchdog to lawmakers: Move swiftly on transit reforms

By Richard Wronski – Chicago Tribune Reporter – April 21, 2014

As lawmakers held their first hearing today on recommendations from the special mass transit task force created in the aftermath of the controversy at Metra, the state’s top watchdog urged them to move swiftly on reforms.

Ricardo Meza, the state’s executive inspector general, urged the committee to act soon on toughening the state’s ethics laws, particularly as they affect the transit agencies.

Some legislators have introduced bills to increase transparency, but “unfortunately, those bills have gone nowhere,” Meza said.

“Our office is here to inform the committee that additional legislation is needed to ensure proper independent oversight of the transit boards,” he told the lawmakers.

The panel may need more than one legislative session to act on the sweeping proposals, especially one to restructure the CTA, Metra and Pace into a single superagency replacing the Regional Transportation Authority, its chairman said.

“Changing the governance of something that’s been around all this time is not something you do in a couple of months, so we’re going to take our time,” said Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields, chairman of the House Mass Transit Committee.

Meza’s office is continuing to review allegations raised last summer by ousted Metra CEO Alex Clifford concerning attempted political patronage and interference with contracts at the agency.

Another watchdog investigation by Illinois’ Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer, found that House Speaker Michael Madigan did not violate the state’s ethics act in seeking a raise for a Metra employee, a longtime supporter, and a promotion for another. That probe was also prompted by the Clifford charges.

The Clifford allegations, and the ensuing turmoil that resulted in wholesale changes on Metra’s board, led Gov. Pat Quinn to appoint the task force.

Task force members were not invited to Monday’s committee meeting, but will be asked to attend future sessions, Riley said.

Representatives from the CTA, Metra, Pace and the RTA were present to give their agencies’ views on restructuring, funding and areas underserved by transit, among other topics raised by the task force report.

Riley questioned why the CTA has made little apparent progress on the long-awaited extension of the Red Line south of 95th St.

CTA executive Eva-Dina Delgado said the agency has been dealing with extensive federal requirements needed to obtain funding for the $2.3 billion project.

Riley did not appear satisfied and said South Side residents are counting on the extension.

“These folks think this thing is coming. They are making plans for it,” Riley said. “They may not have anything else, but they have a lot of hope. Frankly, I think they are being led on. All the evidence says they are.”

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