It took Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown to point it out, but there are some high regional stakes in the fight over who controls mass transportation in the metropolitan area.
The same fight occurred in 1974 and in the early 1980’s.
When the Chicago Transit Authority had financial problems during the early 1970’s Mayor Richard Daley turned to the Illinois General Assembly for help.
The answer his people and former Governor Richard Ogilvie staffers argued and Republican House Speaker W. Robert Blair (House sponsor of the bill), State Senator John Conolly (Senate sponsor of the bill) and others bought was to form a regional agency called the Regional Transportation Authority to fund public transportation.
The $60-some million price would be financed by the Lottery, which was part of the RTA package. (And, incidentally, the Lottery brought in about that amount of money in its first year.)
The social engineers behind the bill also included provision for an RTA gas tax and an RTA Loop parking tax to discourage use of cars.
Most suburbanites figured out that what the Chicago Democrats with their co-opted Republicans, one of whom (Blair) was seeking support from Chicago newspapers in a run for Governor, were trying to do:
Force suburbanites to subsidize the CTA
That continues to be the game plan.
As Brown put is,
“That always comes down to how to be fair to both the suburban areas where most of the those tax dollars are generated and the city where the demand for mass transit is greatest.”
The result in 1974 was a hard-fought referendum battle which the opponents “lost” by less than 13,000 votes. I put “lost” in quote marks for two reasons:
- The night of the election I was flipping from radio station to radio station. Sometime after ten, an FM station was interviewing Mayor Daley. “It looks as if your RTA referendum is losing, Mr. Mayor,” the newsman observed. “Oh, I don’t know about that. We haven’t stopped casting the ballots.[!’]”
- Then State Rep. Don Totten and I, both freshman legislators, were deeply involved in the fight. After the vote, Totten had members of the Schaumburg Township Republican organization color code all the results in Chicago. In one ward going 58-60% in favor of RTA, there was a precinct that voted 100% in favor. There were about 80 “Yes” votes, not one single one “No” vote and 60 spoiled ballots. The referendum was by paper ballot and a ballot could be spoiled by voting both “Yes” and “No” or scratching some “identifying mark” on it, defined by the Democratic Party election judges, of course. No recount was allowed by the newly-formed, but toothless, not to mention chicken-hearted State Board of Elections.
Now, Republicans have lost influence in the suburbs and Democrats have complete control of state government.
Nevertheless, there are still two men who fought the 1974 battle in positions to make the case that the Metra scandal-fueled effort to centralize power in an agency that will be controlled, lock, stock and barrel by Chicago will hurt the suburbs:
- Al Jourdan and
- Don Totten
A letter they wrote in response to one from Chicago members of the RTA Board stimulated Brown’s column.
“Finally, the real fight is out in the open,” Brown wrote.
“What started as an ostensible effort to straighten out Metra after the second scandal in three years is getting back to more familiar territory—a struggle for money and power.”
Here’s part of what Brown wrote about Jourdan:
“Jourdan, for one, interprets this as the CTA looking for a bigger share of the funding, which is always the case.
“’It boils down to money, M-O-N-E-Y,’ Jourdan told me, admitting that RTA staff helped him draft his letter, which suggested the city board members resign if they don’t see the value of the RTA.”
Both men know what is at stake and are still willing to tell us.
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Incidentally, both Bob Blair and John Conolly lost their legislative seats to suburban Democrats in the fall election in that Watergate year election. RTA was a major factor in their defeats.
And the bi-partisan suburban coalition forged in 1974 was stuck asunder when DuPage County Republican State Senators voted to TRIPLE the sales tax on their constituents and all collar county residents. The rate went from 1/4 of a percent to 3/4 of a percent. 1/4 of a percent was given to county governments to build roads or finance law enforcement. All State Senators from DuPage County, but Carol Pankau voted for the legislation, thus breaking up the suburban RTA coalition.