June 26--As the new chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, Kirk Dillard said Wednesday he plans to use his experience as a longtime state legislator to build consensus at the often-divided agency.
But perhaps just as important as his political skills, Dillard boasts a qualification that few members of Chicago's four transit boards can claim -- he says he's a regular rider of mass transit, specifically Metra's BNSF Line.
"I'm a user of the RTA system, so I have the best experience there is, being a rider most of my life," Dillard said. "I take the (BNSF) and have regularly since 1979 when I started law school."
The RTA's board voted Wednesday to name the Hinsdale Republican as the head of the agency that oversees the CTA, Metra and Pace. Dillard replaces John Gates Jr., who stepped down from the $25,000-a-year post after serving for the past four years. Dillard officially takes over Aug. 1, after he resigns his Senate seat.
"Congratulations and commiserations," joked Gates, who has often had to negotiate contentious standoffs between Chicago and suburban members of the RTA board over sharing transit funds.
Dillard said his first priority will be "the reliability and safety" of the transit system, but also acknowledged that his attention will be focused on board politics and interagency rivalries.
"We will have our moments (of disagreement) but we are one region and one transportation system that serves 8 million residents," Dillard said.
Although the vote for Dillard was unanimous, the decision was made behind the scenes by the suburban and collar-county chairmen and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, all of whom appoint the RTA board members.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said Dillard has a "track record of working collaboratively" in Springfield during his 19 years as a state senator.
"Kirk understands just how important public transportation is to the vitality of our region," Cronin said. "I am confident that he will offer strong leadership...that will address the various funding and governance challenges that are before this agency."
Dillard said he had gained the support of Emanuel, who appoints five of the RTA's 15 members. Emanuel's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Schlickman, head of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called Dillard an excellent choice.
"The fact that the mayor supported his chairmanship is vital for RTA being an effective oversight and coordinating agency," said Schlickman.
A former RTA executive director, Schlickman said Dillard was one of only a few Republicans who voted in favor of the 2008 legislation that averted a mass transit "doomsday" by hiking the local sales tax.
Dillard said he had no agenda to lay out yet, other than to make the region's transportation "seamless and flawless."
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