Monday, March 28, 2005

Is the CTA getting a raw deal or are they shooting themselves in the foot?

The conventional wisdom is that the Chicago Transit Authority leaders are continuing to shoot themselves in the foot in their effort to get a bigger slice of transit funding in the six-county region. First they botch the Brown Line, telling everyone that they can get it done without any station closings, only to reverse course a few years later before construction is set to start, infuriating the electeds along the line. Then they take a hard line with the Illinois General Assembly, telling the world that either the state comes up with $60 or $80 or $100 million or so to plug a structural deficit, or the fare hikes and service cuts will the state's fault. As one senior senator told me "Fuck CTA. You put a gun to my head? Sheeit." Loosely translated, state legislators don't like getting put into a corner and told that it is their responsibility -- and they will be held accountable -- if new money isn't found.

And most people blame the CTA for their current woes.

I think they might be getting a raw deal from conventional wisdom.

First, assume that the CTA is correct on the substance -- they are getting the short end of the transit funding stick in the region. Remember, Cook County taxpayers pay 1% sales tax, while the other counites (Will, DuPage, McHenry, Kane and Lake) all pay only 0.25% sales tax. CTA also runs a 24-hour service while Metra in the burbs need not. And the numbers don't lie. CTA and Pace are broke, while Metra is doing very well financially, thank you very much.

And here we are approaching April and the only legislative solution so far for new money is a propsed software tax to close a big business loophole. That's expected to generate $66 million or so, and in the Governor's proposed budget, all the money goes to the CTA. Is that enough to avoid the upcoming fare hikes and service cuts? Maybe this year.

Ultimately, the remedies are (a) a return to the pre-1993 federal operating subsidies for mass transit -- it was President Clinton who was the first to propose eliminating the federal dollars for mass transit (b) raise the sales tax to 1% in the other counties, and put that extra money into transit in a way that convinces the suburbanites that it benefits the whole region and not just the CTA (c) raise the gasoline tax (my personal favorite) and (d) reallocate the existing funds to put more into CTA and Pace and less into Metra and the RTA bureaucracy.

Those remedies are not so much on the table. Representative Julie Hamos is chairing the Mass Transit Committee to look to hash out a consensus solution, and there's been a lot of good work done already, but a solution has yet to emerge.

So what else is CTA supposed to do but start the process of fare hikes and service cuts without adequate funding? And they get the heat as the bad guys. It doesn't seem quite right to me.

UPDATE: State Representative John Fritchey is one of the North Side electeds who is quite unhappy with the CTA's handling of the Brown Line. This article in the Sun-Times lays out how Fritchey doesn't believe the CTA's line that it is impossible to change the construction schedule to avoid station closings.

I wonder if the ultimate state remedy is some more accountability or transparency. I'm not sure exactly how that might work. Ideas are welcome.

UPDATE TWO: I've got some figures from the RTA. This is the 1983 deal which the CTA contends leaves them on the short end of the stick.

Source of sales tax

Chicago (1%) Cook burbs (1%) Collars (.25%) (Lake, McHenry, DuPage, Will, Kane)
CTA 100% 30% 0%
Metra 0% 55% (!) 70%
Pace 0% 15% 30%

So that's the point that CTA is raising. CTA thinks that 55% in suburban Cook for Metra is way too high, and that the collars ought to pay more than 0.25% sales tax for the service in the collars.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

What is the current revenue and expenditure data for the CTA?

Anonymous said...

I ride the Brown line everyday and am a big supporter of public transportation. But I can't support the CTA because I have no doubt that their budget woes are the result of gross mismanagement and inefficiency. Say what you want about Metra, but a big reason they fly under the radar with all their government subsidies is that they run a better operation. If CTA cannot cover their costs, then raise the $1.75 fare. If that is unfair to the working poor and the city wants to maintain artificial fares for public policy reasons, then so be it. But I refuse to believe that the CTA "has no choice" but to raise rates to cover its "costs." How many employees do they have? What are they paid? What are their benefits? How long do typical repairs run and how often do they go over budget? Who does the accounting oversight? These are all questions that Metra could answer in a day. Could the CTA? As far as I'm concerned, they're just one of several wasteful but necessary city services. Can you really convince me (or any state senator) that CTA is not poorly managed? - CF

Anonymous said...

I ride the Brown line everyday and am a big supporter of public transportation. But I can't support the CTA because I have no doubt that their budget woes are the result of gross mismanagement and inefficiency. Say what you want about Metra, but a big reason they fly under the radar with all their government subsidies is that they run a better operation. If CTA cannot cover their costs, then raise the $1.75 fare. If that is unfair to the working poor and the city wants to maintain artificial fares for public policy reasons, then so be it. But I refuse to believe that the CTA "has no choice" but to raise rates to cover its "costs." How many employees do they have? What are they paid? What are their benefits? How long do typical repairs run and how often do they go over budget? Who does the accounting oversight? These are all questions that Metra could answer in a day. Could the CTA? As far as I'm concerned, they're just one of several wasteful but necessary city services. Can you really convince me (or any state senator) that CTA is not poorly managed? - CF

ChicagoJason said...

Dan,

All of what you say may be true, but the situation has been inflamed by the totally incompetent management of CTA prez Frank Kruesi. The Brown Line fiasco and the funding crisis are just two of the titanic screw-ups to occur on his watch. To wit: the rollout of the Chicago Card was over a year late (I wonder how much that delay cost--we'll probably never know); the CTA's spent millions equipping tunnels for cell phone reception while stations throughout the system continue to decay; communication with riders about delays and system problems is spotty at best; and public participation in decision-making is virtually nonexistent. (Do people even know that there is a CTA Citizens Advisory Board? If they do, do they realize that it went dormant--in violation of state statute--for a number of years until recently? Or that it consists not of average citizens who use the system, but 3 mayors (2 from municipalities that aren't even served by the CTA) and a few other worthies who already serve on countless other boards that compete for their attention?

It's a real shame that one of the most important government agencies in the everyday lives of Chicago residents is also one of the least accountable.

Kruesi is also one of the most personally unpleasant public officials I've ever seen--what a super choice to be the ambassador for a critically important agency.

To regain credibility with state legislators, let alone CTA customers, the only solution is to fire Kruesi and fire the board. How about it, Mayor Daley? How about some leadership? We know Kruesi's your bud, but how many times will you allow him to screw things up before you sh1tcan him?

FightforJustice said...

The Trib identified the technique employed by the CTA: the "Firemen First" principle. In a financial crisis, threaten to get rid of those services that matter most to constituents, rather than administrative waste, patronage, insider contracts, etc. That way taxpayers may be intimidated into coughing up more cash.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

Let's assume all this is true. Let's assume the CTA management is not nearly as efficient as it should be, and that there remains patronage and administrative waste left to cut. What's a state legislator to do? Should the state pass a reform package that includes limits on administrative costs? Impose a civil service system? Give the RTA much more authority to meddle with CTA's internal system? Cutting services shouldn't be an option.

Glenn Brown said...

Of course we are missing out on the other piece of the puzzle here - that the suburbs have lower ridership because they are grossly underserved by mass transit.

My problem with Kruesi is not that he is raising the issue but that he is turning the issue into a city-suburbs pissing contest that can never be won and misses the whole point.

The fact of the matter is this region is choking to death on its own traffic and must implement a much more visionary approach to sustainable transit or it will be in severe economic trouble inside a decade. The fact that we are only now building a metra rail line parallel to 355 is simply astounding. This should have been finished at least 5 years ago.

This should not be made into class or regional warfare. It desperately needs to be a co-ordinated effort to recognize the immense problems in the suburbs as well as the city that our car culture has foisted upon us.

Oh, and stop zoning for gated communities and strip malls in a city of 3 million people.

ted said...

Metra might be rolling in cash, but their service is still far from ideal. They still don't run trains nearly often enough to most locations, especially evenings and overnight.

And why can't Metra and PACE play well together? PACE would be so much more effective if there was a way to transfer from Metra without paying the whole $1.50. The 422 bus is amazing in that it goes from Linden to the Wilmette Metra station and literarly meets a train there. And no one gets on. What's up with that?

Anyway, I'd love to see a gas tax that funds transit, not just the RTA, but all transit, including in East St. Louis (great system, needs expanding).

Anonymous said...

Come on, Metra can't answer those questions -- just compare the level of detail provided in their budget. Say what you want about CTA, but there's a lot more detail in their budget documents. And CTA eliminated conductors years ago, how many employees are on each Metra train?

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

I agree there should be a statewide gas tax to fund all transit. Each penny increase generates 60-some million dollars. A nickel ought to do it. You're right Ted -- Metra should accept transfers from CTA and Pace (and vice verse). CTA and Pace have admirably worked out a great transfer policy. Metra is holding out. That's not good policy. Also, I don't think it's fair to criticize Metra for the conductors. According to Pagano (the Director of Metra), the Federal Railroad Administration rules require them to have those extra conductors onboard. And both CTA and Metra (and Pace) should be required to answer all those questions. Representative Hamos has been pushing hard to get all that data submitted to the state in a format that allows for easy comparisons, and a lot of that is available on her website: www.juliehamos.org