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Monday, March 05, 2007

Transit `reform,' yet again

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Commuters will be happy to know why their CTA train and bus service stinks: It's the organization chart's fault.

And here you thought it was malfeasance, corruption or incompetence.

We have been told by legislators, consultants and assorted observers that the Toonerville Trolley, the Chicago Transit Authority's sorry excuse for "rapid" transit; crummy maintenance; decaying equipment; underserved neighborhoods and communities, and now, the tiresome warnings of fare increases and service reductions can be laid at the feet of how the Regional Transportation Authority is organized.

And therefore, for the third time in more than 30 years, we're about to have another political battle over a major restructuring of the region's mass transit system. And just like before, it eventually might not matter a fig because some politicians will see it as a way to grab extra power over the lode of jobs and contracts.

We're about to relive history, folks, and it ain't pretty.

Back in the early 1970s, when the remnants of a once glorious but bankrupt private transit operation serving the city and suburbs were wheezing their last breath, the government took over responsibility for funding and running it. Thus the RTA's creation.

Mayor Richard J. Daley first opposed its creation, not wanting to hand the suburbs (and Republicans) the slightest control over the CTA (even though it served about 30 suburbs). Eventually Daley saw that what the suburbs might do to him, he could do to them. So he supported its creation and engineered the installation of a public works commission to run it.

Thus began years of ineffectiveness, thanks to infighting over how to divvy up revenue and service between the city and suburbs and their political potentates.

The RTA, as created, was intended to exercise tight professional control over the operations and finances of the CTA and the suburban rail and bus operations. It didn't, and sure enough, a decade later, another financial crisis arrived. So did a major reorganization, which decentralized some of the RTA's powers, and pushed them down into the operating units: the CTA and the newly created Metra rail and Pace suburban bus operations.

Not unexpectedly, the wasteful duplication of service, contracting and administrative functions didn't end, but that wasn't the whole problem. Mass transit was underfunded, thanks in part to the reluctance to charge riders what they should be paying (more than what they are now), generous CTA labor contracts and high CTA absenteeism, among other systemic problems.

Those problems existed--and will continue to exist--because the political powers in this feudal system did not allow the RTA to impose a solution.

The promised benefits of consolidation, cooperation and coordination under the original RTA still echo in my ears from when I covered the agency's creation in the early 1970s. Riders were guaranteed some form of "universal fare card," which would permit easier transfer between bus and train systems, thus attracting more riders. And where does it stand?

Last year--32 years later--a consultant came up with some recommendations for finally getting it done. Last month, the RTA announced that a deal had been worked out--ta-dah--to install some CTA transit-card vending machines in two more downtown train stations, so Metra riders who ride the CTA in the second leg of their commutes don't have to go elsewhere to buy their CTA card.

Should have happened years ago. Pathetic.

This is more than a matter of rivalries between agencies. It is a reflection of the deeper political divisions that drive the agencies' actions and inactions. There is no one willing to crack down on the CTA--the main source of the RTA's problems--because no one dares take on the city's power, meaning Richard M. Daley's power.

And Daley can't reform, even if he wanted to, the CTA, as he claims to have done with the schools and the housing authority, without the legislature's help, meaning our money. But the state isn't in any better shape with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's extravagant and utopian promises for other pet projects. The pressure is on.

There'll be a lot of talk about giving the RTA a stronger hand, to improve coordination and so forth. But will it be all talk? More important, will a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature really be willing to step over the line and crack down on the CTA, especially in light of Daley's landslide re-election?

Or will the legislature again just reshuffle the organization chart to make it look like something has happened, while continuing business as usual?

2 comments:

djjordanfarb said...

Here is a Utopian idea: Blow up the CTA, RTA, Pace and Metra and start over with just one system for Chicagoland.
That, in the short run, may be politically improbable. But, as you suggest, trying again to reform the existing system promises just more political mess in the long run.
Is not merger what is needed for "consolidation, cooperation and coordination" to be more than a hollow echo?
--David Jordan, Chicago

Anonymous said...

Monday, March 5, 2007

Slow Byrne
Dennis Byrne, the Chicago Tribune columnist, is the kind of guy who gives dyspepsia a bad name. The ascerbic and put-upon tone of his columns bring to mind a suburbanite hunkered down in a bomb shelter plastered with Goldwater posters, convinced that the city is the den of all evils.

Byrne's March 5th column is entitled "Transit 'Reform,' Yet Again." The theme of the column is that the City of Chicago has stood in the way of meaningful reform of the region's transit system and that "there is no one willing to crack down on the CTA--the main source of the RTA's problems--because no one dares take on the city's power, meaning Richard M. Daley's power."

Byrne is never one to let the facts, such as years of underfunding of the CTA's capital needs relative to Metra and the much higher capital and operating subsidies supporting Metra and Pace riders--mostly suburbanites--relative to CTA riders, stand in the way of a good jeremiad.

Nor does Byrne acknowledge that the CTA has been able to increase its ridership since 1995 even though the population in its service area has dropped, while Pace has lost ridership during the same period even though the population growth in its collar county service area has grown substantially. (See here at pg. 45 of 50) So much for the CTA's purported incompetence in running a transit system relative to the other service boards.

Simply put, the CTA is the "main source" of the RTA's problems because the CTA still carries almost 80 percent of the public transit customers in the region. The CTA does have serious labor cost problems, among other huge challenges, but to single out the CTA and pummel it as Byrne has done is just grandstanding for Byrne's hoped-for suburban readership constitutency.

Byrne's assessment is important, however, not because it is based on the facts but because it reflects a powerful strain of nativist suburban opinion that will be just as big an obstacle to meaningful change in the regional transportation system by the General Assembly as the purported greediness of the City of the Chicago:

"This is more than a matter of rivalries between agencies. It is a reflection of the deeper political divisions that drive the agencies' actions and inactions. There is no one willing to crack down on the CTA--the main source of the RTA's problems--because no one dares take on the city's power, meaning Richard M. Daley's power."

"And Daley can't reform, even if he wanted to, the CTA, as he claims to have done with the schools and the housing authority, without the legislature's help, meaning our money. But the state isn't in any better shape with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's extravagant and utopian promises for other pet projects. The pressure is on."

"There'll be a lot of talk about giving the RTA a stronger hand, to improve coordination and so forth. But will it be all talk? More important, will a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature really be willing to step over the line and crack down on the CTA, especially in light of Daley's landslide re-election?"

"Or will the legislature again just reshuffle the organization chart to make it look like something has happened, while continuing business as usual?"

Let's hope that the divisive spirit of Pate Phillips that Bryne conjures up with his column does not return to haunt the General Assembly and prevent meaningful change to how the region funds, operates and governs its public transit system.

Source: http://sicktransitchicago.blogspot.com/2007/03/slow-byrne.html