Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chicago's Transit Troubles, and Toronto's Lessons

When it comes to public transit, there aren't that many cities in North America with which Toronto can treat as equals. New York City's transit system is massive, complex, and wide-ranging, only befitting the city it serves, while Los Angeles has gone from its days of Pacific Electric glory to operating what may well be the shittiest heavy-rail transit network for a city of its size on the continent. Chicago, though - Chicago is comparable.

A CTA bus northbound on Chicago's Michigan Avenue on October 3, 2009

Transit in Chicago is run by the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, which operates and maintains the city's bus routes and 'L' heavy-rail network. Like Toronto, it's had to deal with the rise of the suburban impulse cutting deep into the marrow of its business as passengers jump ship for automobiles. The general impression I get, though, is that when it comes to financing its operations, the CTA is on considerably shakier ground than the TTC.

Though I've not been following its situation for long, the research I've done so far and current reports in the Chicago media suggest that the CTA has historically predicted "transit doomsdays" if it wasn't able to get governmental assistance in making up its shortfalls. This year, that assistance doesn't seem forthcoming. The Chicago Tribune pulls no punches in describing it as a "CTA budget crisis," with the CTA scrambling to plug a $300 million hole that appears to constitute fully one-quarter of its 2010 budget.

It actually reminds me very much of what the TTC went through around 1995, after Mike Harris led the Progressive Conservatives into Queen's Park and cancelled provincial subsidies. The TTC is now somewhat self-sustaining for the most part, getting the majority of its operating funds from the farebox, and though I didn't live in Toronto at the time, everything I've read suggests that was a dark era for the TTC.

The problem is, I'm not sure what the CTA could do to dig itself out of the hole it's been dropped in. Many of the things that could be done to save money are already being done. My understanding is that the crew of a vehicle is the largest portion of its operating expense, and Chicago 'L' trains are run by one person, while Toronto trains have an operator and a guard. Automatic entry at 'L' stations likewise cuts down on the number of personnel necessary. Given that much of the CTA's infrastructure is aboveground, in contrast to the primarily underground nature of the Toronto subway, it seems to me that there'd be more necessity for maintenance than in Toronto - and its physical system is significantly larger, as well.

So they've gone to the farebox and to schedule manipulation. Unless money rains from the sky, or from Springfield, next February the CTA will raise its fares from an across-the-board $2.25 to $2.50 for a bus ride and $3 for a train ride, and service will likely be slashed as well. This disassociation of fares is odd, but can work the way the Chicago transit system is set up - unlike in Toronto, there appear to be no free transfers between trains and buses - although seeing that more than a million people daily ride buses in Chicago compared to 650,000 on 'L' trains, maybe the agency might be better served in the long term by an across-the-board fare hike to $2.75, the same as it currently stands in Toronto, particularly with the Canadian and American dollars rapidly approaching parity.

Another odd thing about Chicago's system that's turning out to be a deep, dark money pit is its policy of free rides for seniors, which appears to have been rammed through by disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2008 for some reason - I haven't yet been able to find anything explaining why. The Tribune reports that the CTA has no plans to ask for the Illinois government to reverse this - because, really, setting out to take Grandma's free rides away might not make you the most popular organization in the city. This is compared to Toronto's $1.85 discount for senior riders, the same as students - I'm not sure if anyone other than infants can ride the system for free.

It seems to me that the CTA may be hemorrhaging money - the Tribune credits CTA President Richard Rodriguez with the statement that it costs the agency $7 to provide a ride, whereas the recent noise over Metropass fare shortfalls comes from the TTC making an average of $1.77 per trip when it expected to make $1.80. Hopefully I'm comparing wildly different things here, because if these two sets of figures are talking about the same thing, Chicago doesn't look like it's in a good place at all.

The CTA is hardly the only transit operator to be clobbered by the recession. I recall the example of St. Louis, which slashed a quarter of its bus routes back in March in spite of the number of people who relied on that city's transit system to get around. Nevertheless, I do think that Toronto is on far firmer ground than Chicago in that respect, and it may be in part because Toronto's heavy-rail infrastructure is less extensive. When the CTA was formed in 1947, it inherited an elevated rail network assembled by multiple competing transit companies over the course of fifty years in a time when personal automobile ownership was limited to the well-off, and today it serves Chicago as well as forty surrounding suburbs, twenty-four hours a day - including two 'L' lines. Toronto's subway was built in stages even during the explosion of the suburban ethos. The impression I get is that in some ways, the CTA's network is a reflection of a bygone age, and that the fixed system may be too big for the city it serves. While that will be an advantage soon enough, for now it may be making it even harder to make up the money to run the system today.

Keep this in mind, Torontonians, when the TTC makes noise about how it's "losing money" off of Metropass users. The TTC is vital and is embarking on plans for expansion. In Chicago, evey year the CTA seems to forecast armageddon.

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