CTA crisis requires real reform

By Marshall Knudson

My inbox smiled over the summer—listhost warfare took a welcome ceasefire, and I took a breath of relief for a while. Then, a new trickle of troubling messages started to pop up in its place.

“Dear CTA Customer,” each message was headed, unfolding unceremoniously into a disquieting portrait of mass transit, with each message gloomier than the last, animating in my mind the gasping and writhing of a public entity headed to its doom. Massive service cuts, rate hikes, and chaos galore; in Springfield, lackadaisical Governor Rod Blagojevich resolved to turn the course and steer mass transit clear from running aground in northeast Illinois—or at least, from letting it capsize outright.

Just a week ago the bad news got worse as the CTA’s promised “doomsday plan” was unveiled amid much weeping and some cheering (from the CTA’s impassioned critics). This latest CTA setback should have every U of C student dismayed.

I am concerned because the prospect of “getting out” of Hyde Park is looking more like navigating through the rats’ nest of tracks and highway robbers of Sherwood Forest than using the metro in a 21st-century international city. Consider the CTA’s 2008 budget: More than half (82) of its 154 current bus routes are slated for elimination, the bus and rail tariff of $2.00 will increase to $2.75, and for “peak hours,” a ride on the “El” will cost $3.25 a ride.

Let’s face it: Along with its RTA colleagues, Metra and Pace, the CTA is an instrumental part of our city. For riders and non-riders alike, public transit helps to stymie the paralyzing forces of traffic congestion in a sprawling metropolitan region and reduces pollution in the same stroke. In the future, this resource may grow more precious, as soaring fuel costs drive up demand for alternative transit. To invest in the CTA is to invest in the future.

So, what’s the problem? CTA is facing a projected $158 million budget deficit for 2008. The arithmetic is pretty simple: Since the CTA’s funding structure was modified 24 years ago, public subsidies have not kept pace with inflation, while operating costs have sharply increased in recent years due to rising fuel and labor costs. If public subsidies had kept up with inflation in the last 20 years, the CTA would receive an additional $1.6 billion this year. That’s compared to its 2008 public funding of around $470 million. The CTA is obligated to keep a balanced budget, but with concurrent obligations to fund pensions and healthcare for its employees, it must tread along a narrow operational footing.

A lot of people are wont to believe that the CTA is a wasteful public enterprise, and that its doomsday forecasting is misleading. Some cite the admittedly dubious decision to move its executive headquarters from North Racine to West Lake and its failure to realize the lease of its unoccupied top floor since it went on the market in 2003. Others fall back on the rather pertinent trope of bureaucratic overgrowth and waste. Whatever its demerits, the CTA is still grossly under-funded.

The state auditor general’s report emphasizes the fact that, waste and inefficiency notwithstanding, the CTA needs a drastic overhaul merely to sustain operations. Even a doubling of the tariff structure would not suffice.

There are a variety of solutions on the board, including sales tax increases in Chicago and the “collar counties,” increased state funding, and an overhaul of the public funding equation for the CTA. It is clear that greater coordination would be of great merit to the RTA service providers, CTA, Pace, and Metra, since these entities frequently compete along the same routes.

Governor Blagojevich and the state legislature need to get serious about problems facing transit in Chicagoland, but if the City of Chicago is not willing to do the same, then the CTA will continue to operate within a quagmire. The auditor general’s report recommends some sound policy alternatives that might be undertaken in the future. Let’s start there.