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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Special Committee on Mass Transit for Northeastern Illinois


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The Chicago Transit Authority is in big financial trouble and is facing huge fare increases or service cutbacks unless the Illinois State Legislature does something to fix the inherent funding problems.

To learn more about input into the process go to the following links:

Illinois House Special Committee on Mass Transit for Northeastern Illinois

To see the blog of CTA's Chairman Carole Brown go here:

Carole Brown's Blog

Want to know how you can make a difference? Go here:

Keep Chicago Moving

Want More Information?

Save Chicago Transit

Here is what I had to say in my comment on Ms. Brown's Blog:

Thank you for creating this blog.

A few years ago CTA made a big point of promoting its mission statement along the lines of:

CTA's mission is to provide Quality, Affordable, Public Transportation that Links People, Jobs and Communities in a manner that is Clean, Safe, On Time and Friendly.

CTA is often criticized for not being friendly in its dealings with the public and your willingness to do this, have a blog and respond to comments from the public directly makes me feel like CTA is listening when I feel that this funding crisis is threatening the rest of CTA's mission.

I don't see how CTA can provide Quality or Affordable service without help from the Illinois State Legislature. When CTA was created, the funding package assumed that CTA would receive Federal Operating Assistance from the Federal Government to the tune of 80 million dollars a year.

In his lust for Star Wars Reagan cut that assistance from CTA and every other Transit system in the country assuming that the States would pick up the tab. This would have been in the late 80's or early 90's.

But Illinois did not do this. Unlike many of the East Coast States and California the Illinois State Legislature did nothing to change CTA's funding formula, instead it forced CTA to cut service and raise fares in the 90's. This benefitted no one and added to the congestion which we all face today.

I do not know about you, but I think that the congestion we face on the streets and on the highways is much, much worse than it was 15 years ago, and this is a direct result of Reagan's policies and the State legislators failure to pick up the ball.

Here we are 15 - 18 years later, and as Reagan would say "Here we go again" it looks like they are going to sit on their hands and not do enough for transit, while Bush tries to scare us all into thinking that problems abroad and profits at home are more important than the day to day needs of everyday working Americans.

What I cannot understand, what galls me, is after decades of Republican control of the Govenor's office that it is the Democrats who are standing in the way of making things right for CTA. I certainly would not stand in the way of a critical need downstate - why can they not act on a critical need here?

From what I could figure out from what was on the website, the staff and the Transit Board made the only contingency plans possible given the funding now available, but if the legislature does not act, I believe it will be an act of public disservice unique in the history of Illinois.

Chicago is a grid system. CTA's service quality depends on a certain level of service for its customers to be able to make their journeys. Without that level of service quality the whole system falls apart and CTA faces the very real prospect of driving customers off the system.

I do not feel that CTA's customers should tolerate that. If it were not for the need to be on time for work the legislators should be faced with crowds calmly waiting at bus stops and train stations for the service to arrive. Sadly this won't happen and eventually people will buy cars further increasing congestion and pollution in what is already an ozone non-attainment zone.

Frankly, I am surprised that the EPA will allow the State of Illinois to allow CTA to cut this much service given that Cook County is in non-attainment. Perhaps there is no regulation against it. Perhaps it is only because we have a Republican Federal Administration. I am not a lawyer.

The second problem is of course with affordable service. I have a harder time with that one because CTA has been such a bargain over the years. With no Fare increases for 12 years and even then not keeping up with the price of inflation it is hard to argue that CTA fares could not go up, particularly given the recent increases in the price of fuel which have to impact CTA just as they affect drivers.

At the same time there is a social justice argument that senior citizens and the working poor need CTA to function and I do not want to undermine those who are already struggling to survive.

I think this is where I have the biggest problem with the idea of service cuts. Instead of shrinking service CTA should be expanding service, linking people who live in the city to where the jobs are whether that is in Chicag or in the suburbs. CTA is not an agency of the City of Chicago, it is an independent state agency that serves the City and a large number of suburbs.

I feel strongly that it should serve those suburbs more completely, especially to major employer sites just or not far outside the city limits where bus service stops for no reason other than the fact that streetcars once stopped there.

We should also consider whether it makes sense to look at employment patterns and cultivate relationships with new suburban partners that need the employees that Chicago has and CTA can deliver.

In the mean time, what the State Legislature must address is that CTA does not have either an equitable or stable source of funding.

Its funding source is inequitable because suburban residents make great use of CTA yet CTA gets little or no benefits of suburban sales taxes despite the large share of Chicago city residents that shop in the suburbs. Perhaps we Chicago residents should boycott suburban shopping completely, but this is unrealistic. It is the distribution that is unfair.

A second level of inequity is that Metra is allowed to undercut CTA fares within the City limits. This has to stop. Metra should not be allowed to charge less than the CTA cash fare for a one way ticket for any ride that originates or terminates within the City of Chicago. Period. Over the years Metra has been quietly undercharging for services within the city and overcharging their suburban customers to do so. Yet they do not complain.

Another inequity that stems from the funding inequities is I am afraid, at least a perceived, if not an actual racial bias. Why is it that the majority of predominantly white male suburban riders get to commute into the city on double-decker air-conditioned express commuter trains, some of which have bar cars, while two-thirds of CTA's customers the majority of which are female and many minority must uses buses which have a much lower travel time, require transfers to finish trips, and in general have much lower service quality?

The answer is to be found easily in the disparity in funding between CTA and Metra over the last 15 or more years. When Reagan discontinued Federal Operating Assistance to CTA, CTA was receiveing $80 million a year in operations dollars THAT WAS NOT REPLACED.

That is a lot of service. $150 Million dollars worth of bus operator and rail operator salaries without an equitable funding split!

So if you have had the feeling that CTA has been getting a raw deal over the last two decades. Surprise. You are right.

The Chairman Can't fix it. The President of CTA can't fix it.
This kind of problem can Only be fixed by State Legislators who created the mess in the first place.

Oh, who had control of the State Legislature back then?

Republicans. So why can't it be fixed now.

Why can't we find a stable funding source for CTA that does not whipsaw up and down with the economy like an out of control elevator or the parachute ride at Riverview?

Is it even a good idea to use a sales tax as the basis for transit funding?

By itself no. For exactly that reason. As the economy plunges, transit fares are forced to go up just when family budgets are tightest due to lost jobs and job searches are limited due to service cuts. What are we as a society, stupid?

Nobody likes real estate taxes, but that would be a more stable source.

A better model is used in New York State where they have a Real Estate Mortgage Tax of 1%.

48% goes to the municipality in which the mortgage originates. 50% to the Transit Authorities that provide service through a formula. 2% to an agency that distrubutes the funding. It has broad ongoing support because the municipalities got a new revenue source. In a region like this one, anyone who stays in their house for a long time never pays it.

The tax tends to be paid disproportionately by those who move in and out of the region quickly because of corporate job climbing or because of a one time move into the region and so becomes a kind of user fee.

Those who refinance do feel it, but it is low enough that it does not discourage refinancing when good drops in rates are seen. And in times of real recession where major buildings change hands or are refinanced, think Sears Tower, it can be a major source of income. However, by itself, it may not be enough to fund transit operations in the region.

If you add the business software tax to the mix, with lower rates on all three, then you have a diversified portfolio of funding sources which are less of a burden to each of the funding sources than they might hacve been, are more stable in the long run, and are more equitable without unduly penalyzing metra and pace. Care would have to be made that the higher real estate values in the suburban areas did not create the smae problems for Chicago that sales taxes did.

But for any of this to work, continued support for CTA from anyone who uses CTA is needed because often the legislators "suggest" to CTA I have been toldwhat routes they, car drivers all, think are dulicative and uneeded.

To paraphrase what was said in WWII:"They came for the #16 and I said nothing because I did not ride it, they came for the #44 and I said nothing because I said nothing because it was not my route, then they came for my route - and there was no one left to complain with me."

Thanks again to Ms. Brown for this opportunity to speak out. I hope I do not sound like I am ranting. But I am pretty upset after riding all these years, and after voting for these people all these years, that they would let it come to this.

This is the kind of thing that makes me reconsider very carefully who I will be voting for next time around.


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