The Barbershop has re-located

The proprietor has moved the shop to ChicagoNow, a Chicago Tribune site that showcases some of the best bloggers in the Chicago area. You can logo on to the Barbershop home page here. The ChicagoNow home page is here.

You'll still be able to post comments with the same ease as in this location. The proprietor also will keep this web site alive if you wish to review old posts.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No guts in Springfield, no transit fix

Iraqi parliament has shown more courage in solving its problems than Illinois legislators

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

For all of the Iraqi parliament's flaws, I would trade it straight up for the crowd that we've got in Springfield. Ridiculous, you say? Then, consider what both have accomplished. First, the Illinois state government: (This space left intentionally blank.)

That's right, nothing. Maybe the Iraq parliament hasn't done much more but think about its challenges compared with Illinois' crew. Iraq has to repair centuries of tyranny and brutalization. The country is split in three, marked by a centuries-long and sometimes bloody religious feud. With virtually no experience with self-government, the Iraqis are expected to come up instantly with a government and culture that respects democratic values.

Compared with Illinois, Iraq is a shining city on a hill. Compared with Iraq, Illinois is a stupefying challenge to the idea that democracy is the best form of government. Compared with Iraq, all Illinois has to do is relatively easily: come up with a few hundred million dollars to keep mass transit running. Yet, Illinois remains stymied because the political leadership here doesn't have the guts to face transit riders who would be upset if they were asked to pay a fairer share of their costs. As I have mentioned before, mass transit is one of the best transportation deals around; taxpayers match every dollar riders pay in fares. If commuters paid, say, 60 or 75 percent of their rides' cost, instead of 50 percent, perhaps transit wouldn't be knocking on our doors so often. With this, I'm not suggesting that taxpayers should no longer subsidize mass transit, as some of my critics charged. Even if riders paid a fairer share of the cost of their rides, they would still benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxpayer largesse.

Which leads to another, thoughtful suggestion, presented in a new study by the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank. It challenges the common assumption that the only "sustainable solution" to the Chicago Transit Authority's problem is to increase revenues, with some fascinating and surprising findings.

While the CTA has indeed made some cuts, huge productivity savings remain yet to be made, the analysis concludes. If the CTA were as productive now as it was in 1979, it could reduce the agency's public subsidy to $257 million, from the current $527 million. That would more than cover the $158million deficit projected for the 2008 budget.

The key problem is the bus system: Now there are 154 bus routes, compared with 134 in 1979, and the total route miles have more than doubled; yet ridership has fallen 45 percent. "The bus operations data indicate that in 1979, the CTA operated a tightly focused, more market-sensitive route map. ... Today, with the route miles up 143 percent, it appears the CTA is running too many route miles for too few riders, making the bus system inefficient," according to the study. In other revealing comparisons between the CTA of today and 30 years ago (all financial figures are in constant 2007 dollars), the analysis discovered that the subsidy per rider has increased 35 percent, to $1.07 from 79 cents. That illustrates the "fallacy of the CTA public relations and budget document claims that the CTA's public subsidy has not kept pace with inflation. While that fact is true in absolute dollars, it is a misleading fact since the key data point is the subsidy per rider. In fact, one could make the case that the subsidy is excessive by $138million."

The institute offers 10 thoughtful proposals for a truly sustainable solution to the crisis, including a call for cessation of all expansion projects: "The CTA has been spending money on expansion and other unneeded projects while basic maintenance is being ignored." Another is to require true transparency of CTA spending: "Every check written, every contractor paid, every consultant hired and all the other details of spending should be open in an online easily searchable database. ... The bill offered by [state Rep.] Julie Hamos [D-Evanston] has transparency window dressing, but we need real sunshine to fix the problems."

Any governor, legislator, politician or public policy wonk who claims to be looking for a sustainable, permanent solution to mass transit funding problems without closely examining and implementing the Illinois Policy Institute's real solutions is lacking the courage to stand up to the given wisdom that the only way to solve the problem is to throw more money at it. It's pathetic when you consider the courage that is required of the members of the Iraqi parliament for the life-threatening job of just showing up.


Shivering at the Bus Stop said...

Dennis, I double dog dare you to give up your comfy Metra commute (if you don't simply drive), take the CTA buses I do (routes 22, 36, 134, 135, 156) and tell me that we should CUT the number of buses. In the afternoon they are so packed by the time they reach the Lake/LaSalle or Dearborn stop that sometimes they refuse to take in passengers. Can't you see the catch-22 here? Make the bus and trains MORE miserable and you'll lose more ridership (or make the suburbs more attractive to businesses -- maybe that's the secret plan!)

Thomas said...

Dennis, I almost always agree with your opinions, but you are missing something when you are so critical of the CTA. How come no mention of Metra and Pace? How many riders are there on the CTA compared to Metra and Pace? How much are the Metra and Pace riders subsidized as compared to CTA riders? I don't have the answers to these question, but I suspect you would be surprised by such comparisons. I occasionally ride Metra and have noted all the new stations that have been built or are in the process of being rebuilt. I also notice all the nice new equipment that Metra has. As far as Pace is concerned, I have also noticed many times the buses with few or sometimes no passengers in them. I don't think you are telling the whole story when it comes to how the RTA is subsidizing the CTA, Metra, and Pace.

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

Blago does not have a blank record of accomplishment. For one thing, he got the budget under control. We no longer face the $5 billion deficit left behind by the criminal George Ryan.

Nor does the Iraqi parliament deserve any credit. They cannot reach agreement on sharing oil revenues and have kicked this issue down the road far longer than Illinois has done with transportation.

Cutting routes is not a good solution. These routes reflect current commuter demographics. Reducing them would cause the same problems that air travelers have encountered. While the airlines became profitable by eliminating routes, that action increased delays, since more people are getting bumped from overbooked flights. A better solution would be to run smaller buses on routes with fewer passengers.

The real roadblock to an agreement is how to fund it. Now that Madigan is willing to use gas taxes instead of sales taxes, it looks like a solution is in sight.