Doomsday: The CTA’s decades-long death throes

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) entered the 21st century riding high. After a series of service cuts in the 1990s, it was slowly eating away at its deficit while conducting line-by-line modernization of the El. According to its long-term Destination 2020 plan, published in 1998, several major projects were in the works, including expansions of the Orange and Red Lines and a new Mid-City Transitway that would connect the Northwest Side to the Southwest and South Sides without going through downtown. In 2005 the CTA posted its highest ridership numbers since 1992. Nevertheless, at the presentation of the 2007 budget in October 2006, then-president Frank Kruesi announced that unless the CTA received an additional $110 million in public funding, unspecified cuts would be necessary.

The hoped-for $110 million, which made up ten percent of the 2007 budget, has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, one year and several postponed doomsdays later, the CTA’s new 2008 budget asks for a total of $158 million in bail-out funds from the state. If the Illinois General Assembly doesn’t pony up by January 20, 2008, the CTA will eliminate eighty-one out of 154 bus routes, lay off more than 2,400 employees, and raise fares. On top of that, even if the tragicomic dogfight known as the Illinois legislature were to come up with the $158 million, the CTA would still be short more than $6 billion required for vital modernization and repairs. So what happened? How did the CTA fall from the top of the world to the brink of disaster?

The CTA was never on top of the world in the first place. In fact, its fortunes have been falling almost continuously for the past half-century. For over a decade after its creation in 1947, the CTA actually made money. Then came a series of interrelated challenges faced by mass transit systems across the country: the advent of the Eisenhower interstate system, the sudden dominance of the automobile, and white flight from the city proper to the suburbs. By the early 1970s, it was clear that something had to be done to save the CTA, which at the time derived its entire operating budget from fares. In 1974 a referendum approved the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which would be entrusted with direct jurisdiction over suburban bus and rail lines as well as supervision of the CTA. The RTA was also granted the power to fund itself through a tax on gasoline. The referendum establishing the RTA passed because of strong support in Chicago and despite strong opposition in the suburbs, whose mostly white and middle-to-upper-class occupants saw mass public transportation as an urban issue that had little or nothing to do with them. This historical suburban-urban hostility is responsible for the structural problems that have sent the CTA through so many doomsdays over the years.

The revenue from the RTA’s gas tax proved inadequate, and several more rounds of major service cuts led up to the 1983 deal that restructured Chicagoland mass transit into its current form. Pace and Metra were established under the umbrella of the RTA, side by side with the CTA, and given responsibility for suburban buses and commuter trains, respectively. A formula for funding the CTA was also established. From then on, the CTA was to receive a yearly minimum contribution of $3 million from the City of Chicago and $2 million from Cook County. In addition, one-percent of the state sales tax collected in Chicago and three-fourths-percent of that collected in Cook County outside Chicago would be earmarked for the CTA. However, the suburbanites, ever wary of being required to fund urban mass transportation, forced the inclusion in the deal of a “farebox recovery ratio” of fifty-two-percent; in other words, fifty-two-percent of the operating budget had to come from fares, as opposed to governmental subsidies.

There was little that was satisfactory about the 1983 deal, and the CTA’s website claims it was “seen as a temporary solution and expected to expire after a few years.” The City of Chicago has consistently interpreted its relatively minuscule $3 million dollar minimum commitment as a ceiling rather than a floor–although City Hall likes to claim the one-percent of state sales tax collected within the city’s borders for the CTA (over $200 million per year) is the city’s contribution rather than the state’s. Furthermore, the powers granted to the RTA by the 1983 deal are insufficient to make it more than a brief stopover point for cash destined for the CTA, Pace or Metra. The RTA has no power to set fares or force its three subordinates to work together, resulting in useless competition between the three, redundancies, and the continued lack of an integrated fare card.

Things have only gotten worse in the decades since the restructuring deal. The rigid formula established then didn’t take into account the rapid rate of inflation or the rise in cost of fuel and security. It also failed to foresee the end of federal operating assistance in 1990–the federal government now contributes occasionally to capital improvements, but no longer provides any part of the RTA’s operating budget. Perhaps most importantly, though, the 1983 plan didn’t foresee the increasing regional integration of Chicagoland. The polarization between the poor, minority-dominated city core and the surrounding ring of wealthy white suburbs has been all but erased. Commuters from the suburbs to the city, commuters from the city to the suburbs, immigrant families with branches all over the area, and a major restructuring and decentralization of the regional economy have led to a much greater interdependence–but the CTA still doesn’t get a cent from the collar counties.

So how should the CTA crisis be fixed and doomsday averted? Answers to this problem tend to focus only on the immediate issue: how the state should raise the funds to bail out mass transit. The two main tools for fundraising under consideration are tax increases and gambling expansion. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and his allies favor the former option, specifically a plan introduced by Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) that would increase the sales tax across the region. On the other side are Republican leaders in the State House and Senate together with Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) and the increasingly unpopular Governor Rod Blagojevich, who favor at least one new riverboat casino somewhere in Illinois, a new land-based casino in Chicago, and slot machines at horse-racing tracks. Thus far neither side has had enough votes to settle the issue, but Madigan has shown signs of budging recently, acknowledging on October 29 that “political conditions” may leave gambling as the only viable solution and stipulating a revamped and strengthened Illinois Gambling Board as a condition of his support. Meanwhile a gambling bill has already passed the Senate, though it has yet to pass the House.

Both sides’ proposals also attempt to address the long-term problems with Chicagoland transit. Hamos’s bill, SB 572, was drawn up in collaboration with transit leaders and includes reforms on pensions and retiree health benefits wrung from unions. If passed it would also restructure RTA’s Board of Directors, increasing the number of members from thirteen to sixteen and diversifying its composition to include five members from Cook County and one member from each collar county, in addition to the five members from Chicago. This is important because it would give the suburbs more of a stake in the region’s transit, but that would be next to useless without a corresponding increase in the RTA’s power. Fortunately the bill takes that into account with various reforms, including authorizing the RTA to withhold twenty-five percent of revenues from a subsidiary until a satisfactory budget is submitted and requiring it “to develop a coordinated regional sales, marketing, advertising and public information program for all transit in the region,” according to Hamos’s summary. Meanwhile Blagojevich’s plan focuses much less on the structural problems and relies on higher fares and a redirection of about $300 million in gasoline taxes. The support from downstate Republicans is reflected in the plan’s subsidies for projects outside Northeastern Illinois.

The provisions for reform included in the Hamos bill–cutting wasteful employee benefits, giving the RTA more power and increasing the collar counties’ stake in regional transport–are a good first step and should be passed regardless of whether the funding comes from a tax increase or from gambling. The burden of paying for public transportation should be spread more evenly across the region. The farebox recovery ratio of fifty-two percent forced upon the CTA by suburbanites in the 1983 deal should be reevaluated. If the City of Chicago and Cook County are to contribute to the CTA’s budget–and they should–those contributions should be much greater than the current negligible levels of $3 and $2 million, respectively, and they should take inflation into account. The CTA should work to increase transparency as a first step to winning back citizens’ trust. Most importantly, local governments should pay closer attention to the voices of their constituents, who are increasingly positive towards public transportation. From proposed suburb-to-suburb Metra lines to increasing environmentalism even among car-driving consumers, suburbanites have plenty of reasons to join with their urban brethren in supporting mass transit. Chicagoland’s increasing integration demands a stronger network of public transportation, and a failure to fix its endemic problems will only lead to more apocalyptic doomsdays down the line.