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Monday, September 17, 2007

'Chicago Way' is no way to run mass-transit system

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Imagine the astonishment of the feds who came here to investigate last year's CTA Blue Line subway accident that injured more than 150 riders and scared untold more. It has to be the same level of stupefaction that greets feds who come here to prosecute the indigenous mob.

Actually, you don't have to imagine the astonishment.

The shock and awe, typically registered by out-of-towners who get a glimpse at how Chicago really works, is graphically laid out in the National Transportation Safety Board's report, released last week, of the subway accident. The "worst" he's ever seen. That's how one NTSB official regarded the CTA's track inspection and maintenance non-system. The train derailed because the track was deteriorating, because no one noticed, because inspections weren't done, or not done well enough, and if they were, the problems weren't getting reported and those that were, weren't getting fixed. Lucky no one was killed. Riders and taxpayers have a right to be enraged at the "Chicago Way" of doing things.

The investigation, citing a deficient safety culture, noted "a series of latent conditions and active failures at many levels through the CTA corporate structure, which is characteristic of an organizational accident." That's bureaucratese for: This is one pathetic, dangerous operation.

But it's the result of more than just one kind of failed "culture." It's the convergence of multiple failed cultures that constitute the Chicago Way, and explain why the CTA is a mess, operationally, physically and financially.

The Chicago Way dictates that the CTA must first be an instrument of political power and greed for City Hall and Springfield; moving people efficiently and safely is but a secondary consideration. The Chicago Way has fostered a larger regional transit setup in which transit, engineering, marketing and other professionalism is smothered in a balance of power struggle among competing political forces in the Chicago area and the state. The latest permutation of the power struggle is again -- sigh -- "reform" that would give the Regional Transportation Authority badly needed and stronger powers to knock some heads together, to get the city and suburban rail and bus lines to act like the single system they should be. A good idea. But it would require a supermajority of the newly constituted RTA board to do anything that would really matter.

Then there is the Illinois Way, which is actually the Democratic Party Way, because all the dolts and opportunists who run (or ruin) things in Springfield are Democrats. The supporting cast of Republicans is like the chorus in the background of a Greek tragedy, wailing in observance, but not doing much else.

Let's not forget the Organized Labor Way, which for decades saddled the CTA with outrageous work rules and pay demands. Yes, labor leaders have made some concessions, no doubt in the spirit of public interest, and not because they were forced.

Throw in the Riders' Way. If they have to pay a bigger share, it's a capital crime. Even though the bargain they're getting, courtesy of taxpayers, allows them to ride for not much more than the price of a good candy bar. Politicians feed this sense of entitlement in many cowardly ways, some of them so covert that they escape even sharp eyes. I refer to a provision of the "reform" legislation that exempts $200 million in aid to regional transit from a law that requires that it be matched by revenues generated from fares.

Which leads us to the Assured Funding Way. This cultural mind-set argues that mass transit must finally get from taxpayers the kind of "assured funding" that it deserves. We go through this Kabuki dance every decade or so. When the RTA was created in the early 1970s, assured funding was a regional gasoline tax. Sure enough, that wasn't assured enough, so that was dropped in favor of a regional sales tax, which was "more assured." Now, an increased sales tax and a huge real estate transfer tax on the sale of Chicago homes, rest assured, are the answers.

Eventually, taxes will be raised, fares will go a little higher, some service will be "rationalized" (cut), political egos will be bruised and "reform" will bring a "new day." But the Chicago Way and other ways of doing things here won't change, and in 10 years, we'll be back where we started.


Al Rubel said...

You have correctly summed up the situation. Having worked at CTA in the late 70's the funding and operational environments have become worse. The system is run for the benefit of the unions, politicians and consultants. The "riding public" has little voice. Regardless of the funding schemes service will continue to decline. Large, "Soviet style" organizations like CTA no longer have the ability to deliver a service as important as public transportation.

lake county democrat said...

Try "the voters way" -- everyone knows who these people are, both parties, and could care less. Daley not only is corrupt, he's a participant in the Berge torture regime. We don't care because even he can't make "the trains run on time," people believe he's made the city better and that excuses all. If the voters demanded clean government the way they demanded no amnesty for illegal immigrants (work permit amnesty included), we'd have clean government. The fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves (thank you, I wrote that myself :-))