Meeting Ron Huberman

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(Photo: No GORE-TEX grows on the CTA’s snazzy new–and surprisingly clued in–president, Ron Huberman. Credit: alfiemartin.)

[***UPDATE, MONDAY, JANUARY 28, 2009: READ THIS FIRST— WHY DALEY IS WRONG TO MOVE HUBERMAN***]

Saturday morning, I was honored to be included in CTA Tattler‘s invitation-only meeting with CTA President Ron Huberman. In addition to meeting personal heroes Kevin O’Neil, publisher of the Tattler, Tony Coppoletta, perhaps the fiercest (and most knowledgeable) transit advocate in Chicagoland, and my favorite Chicago Carless fan, Cheryl Powell, I got to to discuss my major concerns about the CTA, at length, directly with the agency’s very committed prez.

We met up at Clarke’s on Belmont, adjacent to the north side Belmont ‘L’ stop, nine of us regular readers from CTA Tattler, Huberman, and CTA’s customer communications chief, Adam Case. We sat down at 10 a.m. and didn’t get back up again until 11:30. For those 90 minutes, Huberman discussed in detail the challenges to maintaining clean and reliable bus and ‘L’ service and the initiatives the CTA has undertaken to improve the customer experience.

CTA Tattler goes into those comments in great detail, but suffice it to say Huberman is quick to admit the agency’s past and current failings, including ineffectual vehicle cleaning procedures, a poor work ethic on the part of line employees (including some vehicle operators), and a lack of consequences to operators for poor on-time performance.

To the relief of all at the table, Huberman discussed newly revised cleaning timetables and procedures that will get buses and railcars free of grime in a more timely manner, GPS tracking of buses that now keeps tabs on operators who don’t leave terminals on time or take an unapproved break in the middle of their routes, and the replacement by the end of this year of all of the agency’s oldest (1991-era) buses.

Most notable were Huberman’s comments on the bus side. He made an early announcement of the expansion of a $24 million bus tracking system, already in place on the #20 Madison route, that will allow customers to go online at www.ctabustracker.com and check the real-time performance of 10 CTA bus routes. The system will also help keep service consistent by reducing bus bunching, and will be rolled out to more routes as the old 1991 buses are retired and necessary equipment is installed on new vehicles.

Huberman also reported that the on-time performance of bus drivers is now being posted in bus garages in an effort to keep operators accountable for maintaining good service. As a result, bus operators citywide have now begun to compete with each other to outdo their on-time results, a game of one-upsmanship that can only benefit riders.

According to Huberman, the agency is in a good financial position in terms of operations, but capital monies will run out before the end of the year and the CTA is maxed out on its ability to borrow additional capital funds. Huberman touched on a variety of capital improvements the agency would like to make, including more station rehabs and improved customer amenities, but the funds just aren’t there, and likely won’t be until the state legislature provides a new, multi-year capital funding plan for transportation (which doesn’t appear likely to happen before 2009).

Among those improvements currently in limbo, the potential installation of automated high turnstiles at ‘L’ stations where entrances currently only exist in one direction. (What a boon that would be along the Green Line, where budget cuts kept the CTA from installing turnstiles on outbound platforms at many stations during the line’s mid-1990s rehab, forcing riders heading west and south to enter on the opposite side and climb additional, annoying ramps and stairs to to reach the right platform, losing their breath and in many cases missing their trains in the process).

I also queried Ron about spotty service on the #60 Blue Island/26th bus, the main bus line to the Loop from Chicago’s Mexican heartland neighborhoods of Little Village and Pilsen. A second-shifter friend of mine who rides the route regularly from downtown to Pilsen in the mid-evening recently complained to me that the normal headway of 15-22 minutes was almost always more like 45 minutes after 9 p.m.

I asked Huberman whether he could look into the performance of the 60, given the CTA’s past history of rancor with the Latino communities along the route under his predecessor, Frank Kruesi. Keeping the 60 running smoothly in some of the city’s main Latino communities–communities that line city coffers with some of the most lucrative sales-tax receipts in Chicagoland and have been learning to exercise potent political power in recent years–would certainly be a strategic move for the CTA, and pretty low hanging fruit on the tree of potential transit initiatives.

Earlier this month, a poorly worded CTA press release announcing the elimination of almost nonexistent Blue Line ‘L’ service along the still-happily rolling Pink Line route ended up misreported on the front page of Latino newspapers as the end of all Cermak branch rail service, so to my mind the CTA still has a ways to go to bring La Villita back into the happy CTA family of riders. Not for nothing, Huberman pulled out his notebook and wrote down a reminder to look into the 60.

We closed with a request that Huberman take a look at the CTA’s existing Citizens Advisory Board to make sure that the people serving on it truly are daily CTA riders. It’s nice to have a committee full of community leaders, but it means nothing if those leaders drive to work everyday. I asked Huberman to consider Kevin O’Neil and Tony Coppoletta for membership on the advisory board. As far as citizen transit advocates go, I don’t think the CTA could possibly do any better than these two abject rail and bus supporters. (Of course, I wouldn’t mind being on that board myself, either!)

Huberman wavered on that request (he shouldn’t have), but he did promise to meet with the CTA Tattler gang semi-annually. If anyone can imagine Frank Kruesi even pretending to like the CTA’s customers, much less promising to meet with them, I’ll take up driving immediately and furthermore start calling myself a New Yorker again. That kind of openness to the input and experience of riders, married with a deep knowledge of the CTA and a bravery about laying the agency’s assets and liabilities out for all to see and discuss shows the difference between the former and current CTA presidents.

None of that means Huberman ultimately will be successful in turning around an agency that has spent much of the past 20 years holding its customers in contempt. But it’s sure a good start.

And for you single folks out there (unlike me), yes indeed. He’s just as cute in person.

(Yes. Oh, yes I did.)

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