If You Fund It, Will It Operate?

(Photo: A new day dawns for Chicago public transportation, but headaches from the dark night of budget woes remain. Credit: karla kaulfuss.)

No one could be more thrilled than me about the end to the CTA operating funding impasse. For transit users like me, the draconian cuts threatened in January would have essentially confined me to my neighborhood (although a happy downtown neighborhood it is), and most likely have pushed me out of Chicago.

While some among you may have preferred that eventuality, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one to go. I’m not the only Windy City resident who would rather move to another city with a working transit system than to drive in this one.

And you know damn well, I’m not driving. No transit doomsday or suburban love life is ever going to force me into learning how to do that.

What a joy it is to wake up every morning finally secure in the knowledge that no matter how smelly, dirty, or late my particular ‘L’ or bus route of choice, it will still show up to take me to wherever I want to go in this beloved adopted home of mine. That’s thanks to a dedicated funding stream authorized by the state legislature–a pleasure New Yorkers have known for decades (in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars from bridge and tunnel tolls that funnel directly to Gotham’s subways, buses, and commuter railroads).

But New York has something else Chicago is still groping for: capital funds. While it’s wonderful the CTA is still running, many of its component parts are being run into the ground. It’s an old joke that if you give the CTA a brand new bus, it will ride like a bus on its deathbead in a year or three. Inadequate maintenance procedures aside (and likely overhauled under the so-far wise tenure of CTA honcho Ron Huberman), a big part of the reason that happens is money.

Or more precisely, lack of capital funding. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is authorized by New York State to float bonds to raise capital funds for that region’s transit system. And while the debt service costs on 30 years of bonding is a strain on the farebox, what New Yorkers received in return is three decades of five-year, multi-billion dollar capital plans that have led to sweeping overhauls of vehicles, tracks, and stations and a system almost unrecognizable today from the sorry, graffiti-covered state it suffered through in the 1970s.

It’s to the credit of both the CTA and the City of Chicago that prior to the end of the operating funding crisis and still without a reliable capital funding plan, so much of the system has been rehabilitated in the past 15 years (the CTA with the massive rebuilding of the Green and Brown Lines, the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, the Cermak branch of the Pink/Blue lines, and the plan to end slow zones, and the city with regular rehabs on the downtown subway stations it owns).

Sure, under former-Governor/current-convict George Ryan, the state ponied up a couple of capital funding plans of its own. But that hasn’t happened in awhile, and you probably shouldn’t expect much more attention paid to transit from the current administration in Springfield, especially now that the lege has returned to its normal resting state of gridlock.

Earlier this month week, the Chicago Tribune’s John Hilkevitch wrote about the transit battle being halfway won. He’s right. Without a reliable funding source, the existing state-of-good-repair needs of Chicago’s regional transit system will go increasingly unmet. We’ll have the money to run a system, we just wont have the money to fix anything when it breaks.

Worse, though, myriad important transit improvements will go unrealized. Express trains to the airport are a fantasy I could live without. But a Red Line extension for far south side residents, infill stations on the Yellow Line, a Circle Line linking mid-city neighborhoods? I could go for that. It’s not like my regional tax dollars weren’t already spent on a hyper-expensive highway extension I’ll never use (I-355), that will only lead to greater suburban spread into the region’s quickly vanishing farmland. I’d like some transportation tax-dollar love thrown my way too, thanks.

Kudos to Mayor Daley for trying to get the ball rolling on a $227 million state capital plan for transit. That’s a great start and some needed leadership.

Kudos, too, for the CTA. Mere weeks after the operating funding crisis passes and threats of service cuts have already been replaced with announcements of service improvements. Good ones, too, like eight-car rush-hour Brown Line trains, later Grand Avenue bus service, and weekend hours on the Yellow Line.

And in the past week, the RTA, drunk with its heady, new power to manage regional public transit planning (a useful power New York’s MTA has had for many years), has dusted off a longstanding plan to extend the Forest Park Blue Line west into virgin transit territory as far as the Yorktown Mall.

Best of all, though, thanks to the deep examination residents of Chicagoland were forced to give public transit during the months and years we thought we weren’t going to have it anymore, besides operating funds, service improvements, and the beginning of groping towards a capital plan, transit in this region has won something more.

It’s won respect.

No longer can the CTA eliminate a station, or bus route, or entire ‘L’ branch, undergo an external funding threat, or even suffer a major delay, without local media taking notice. In my book, support and respect shown towards transit by a city’s local news media is the linchpin of wider public respect. Most especially, the Tribune’s John Hilkevitch, Red Eye’s Kyra Kyles, and the unstoppable CTA Tattler deserve to take a bow. All three were instrumental in keeping the public’s attention focused on a crisis that, if realized, would have meant economic disaster for Chicago and Chicagoans.

So what now? In this pregnant pause between avoiding disaster and achieving true financial security, it’s probably a good time to start visioning the system we regular customers would like to see now that the CTA is no longer the transportation stepchild around here.

Here’s what I’d love:

–The return of 24-hour service on key ‘L’ and bus routes, especially the Green, Purple, and Brown lines.

–Reduced headways (waits) on the Green Line and the Pink Line, especially weekday evenings and all day on weekends.

–The installation of automated high turnstile entrances (the likes of which you see all over New York City) at every outbound Green Line station that lacks a paid entrance (NOBODY should have to climb 40 feet in the air to access an overpass just to ride an outbound Green Line train).

–Regular cleaning of trains and stations. This has gotten better under Huberman, but there’s still a long way to go.

–Shuttle buses for planned service diversions: when the Red Line is going “over the top” onto the elevated tracks downtown, it’s pretty uncool to tell subway riders to ride two or three miles out of their way in the wrong direction just to access ‘L’ service.

–A long, long, long-needed overhaul to the creaky CTA website.

Oh, and one last thing. Can we all, the CTA included, and most especially the sorely offending Time Out Chicago, please agree to call the rail system by the name it has had for more than 100 years, put in on printed and car maps, shout it from the rooftops, and defend it against all pretenders?

To hell with “rapid transit trains”, “CTA rail system”, or the east coast spelling of “el”. We’ve had it for a century and hopefully we’ll have it for a century more, so please take due note:

It’s an ‘L’ of a system, my friends. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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