Unanimous: Legislature votes to dissolve mass transit agency; Homewood gains control of train station lots

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Unanimous: Legislature votes to dissolve mass transit agency; Homewood gains control of train station lots

June 22, 2021 - 22:03
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The parking lot east of the tracks and north of the tunnel entrance building will become Homewood property in January if Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill that unanimously passed the Illinois House and Senate to dissolve the Chicago South Suburbs Mass Transit District, which currently owns and manages commuter lots. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

At a time when the country is famously divided, the Illinois legislature found common ground on at least one issue during the recent session: Both the House and Senate voted unanimously to dissolve the Chicago South Suburban Mass Transit District. 

The vote in the House was 116-0. In the Senate, it was 58-0. 

Assuming the bill is signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the agency that owns several commuter parking lots along Metra's Electric Line was cease to exist on Jan. 1, 2022.

Homewood will then gain control of commuter parking on both sides of the tracks.

The CSSMTD was created in 1967 as part of the Illinois Local Mass Transit District Act. Its intent was to acquire, construct and operate public mass transit facilities or subsidize their operation. 

It played a role in expanding what’s now the Metra Electric line from Richton Park to University Park, secured buses before Pace was established in 1984 and built or purchased rail commuter parking lots. 

The district helped purchase 130 Highliner rail cars from St. Louis Car Co. in 1971 to lease for use on the Metra Electric Line, known then as the Illinois Central. Railroads were barred from accepting federal funding, which paid for two-thirds of the $40 million cost of the cars. CSSMTD worked as a go-between. The RTA purchased another 36 Highliner cars in 1978 and 1979. 

The last of those cars was retired in 2016. CSSMTD’s only remaining assets are parking lots in three towns, Homewood, Olympia Fields and University Park. 

CSSMTD is the only remaining of four suburban districts. The Regional Transportation Authority now oversees Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace, making CCSMTD unnecessary, according to the villages that promoted the legislation.

"It served its purpose," Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld said. He said the vote in the legislature reflected that. 

The parking lots in Homewood have a combined total of 476 monthly and daily spots. CSSMTD recently introduced payment via a mobile device app, ParkMobile, but for years only accepted cash payments.  

Commuters might see little difference in the lots at first. 

In a letter to Representative Will Davis, who co-sponsored the bill, Mayor Richard Hofeld said Homewood plans to preserve the lots for use for Metra passengers. Similar letters were sent by Olympia Fields Mayor Sterling Burke and University Park Mayor Joseph Roudez. The towns believe they can plow snow, fill potholes and maintain the lots more efficiently than the district, which has to contract out that work. 

State Sen. Napoleon Harris sponsored the bill in the Senate.

According to information provided to The Chronicle by the village of Homewood, between January 2019 and February 2020 CSSMTD paid nearly $49,627.80 for lot maintenance, $15,557.38 for lot repairs and $79,096 for snow removal.

Although the villages are inheriting maintenance costs in addition to the revenue source, Hofeld said there will be other benefits to acquiring responsibility for them. 

"The east side lot on Harwood will be available on weekends and evenings for shoppers and employees parking, events parking on the weekends," he said. 

CSSMTD had total revenues in the 2018-19 fiscal year of $551,250, with $455,808 in expenses for a $95,444 surplus. It had an estimated cash reserve of about $1.5 million. 

Whether revenue becomes a significant positive depends on the return of commuters. Metra officials have said that during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, commuting was down nearly 97%. There are signs that ridership is rebounding, though.

Harvey, Hazel Crest, East Hazel Crest, Flossmoor, Olympia Fields, Park Forest, and Richton Park currently own parking lots along the Metra Electric line. 

The lots in Homewood are near the Amtrak train station and Pace bus terminal on Park Avenue and the Metra station at Harwood Avenue and Ridge Road. The train station facilities are in the process of being updated, improved and brought into compliance with the American Disabilities Act.  

CSSMTD has an 11-member board appointed by member municipalities. Board members are paid $110 per each day dedicated to the district, limited to four per month. The district also has part-time staff. Executive Director Yulonda Duncan receives benefits and a district-owned vehicle.

Duncan did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Eric Crump contributed to this story.