Whoever coined the phrase "You can't fight City Hall" never encountered Jewell Thompson.
Instead of complaining when Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) raised its fares from $50 to $105 for a monthly pass, Thompson, 32, retaliated by putting together a competing transit service and naming it the "Rational Transportation Alternative" -- also with the initials RTA.
What began last August as "five friends calling five of their friends" in Chicago's southern suburbs has evolved into an 80-bus system providing service between numerous suburban communities and the city. "This is a classic example of what people can do when they get mad," says Thompson.
As many as 4,000 commuters pay between $43 and $51 a month to ride the school buses contracted from a local bus company during commuting hours when schools don't need them. While the ride isn't "all that comfortable or plush," Thompson admits, the buses get riders to work on time and at big savings. Besides paying less for the monthly passes, commuters get free parking in the suburbs and, in many cases, are dropped so close to work that they don't need to ride city buses at all.
Camaraderie among the riders is strong. Friday-night parties are common aboard the suburb-bound buses.
The upstart RTA is nonprofit and all workers except the bus drivers are volunteers. A core group of about 100 meets biweekly to handle administrative details.
Despite the service's success, Thompson doesn't know how long it will stay in business. In an election year, she expects Chicago politicians to "pour lots of money" into the public transit system to appease disgruntled communters. But, if such a fund doesn't materialize, Thompson thinks the Rational Transportation Alternative will keep rolling.
If she had it all to do again, Thompson says, she would have incorporated rather than going the nonprofit route. Based on what she now knows about marketing and administering the bus service, Thompson, who works full time as a training and compensation specialist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, believes "RTA" could have been launched as a profit-making venture with the company acting as a paid broker between groups of commuters and the bus companies.