Protest against low transit funding on Wednesday is directed at the wrong audience


One of the buses Pace uses on the Stevenson Expressway shoulders during rush hours. The two routes have seen a lot of demand and Pace is responding by adding more runs. Photo by Ann Fisher. 

On Wednesday, people will gather at the Chicago Transit Authority headquarters (567 W Lake Street) to protest “inadequate funding and policies”, according to the Red Eye. Members from at least two groups (LVEJO and Citizens Taking Action) will join to protest public-private partnerships and to support laid off bus drivers. This is part of a larger National Day of Action for Public Transportation called by Occupy Boston.

They are protesting in the wrong location. They should be rallying at locations where there are people who can do something about underfunded transit: the offices of elected officials, like at City Hall and those of state and federal Congresspersons scattered around town.

Transit in Chicago is funded by in large part by the farebox (CTA’s “recovery ratio” is greater than the 50% required by law) as well as local sales taxes, matching tax grants from the state, and semi-competitive grants from the federal government. We’ve covered a lot about transit funding: August 2011, December 2011, value capture, and Congress’s grandstanding on the surface transportation bill.

However, the CTA does have some control over how it reacts to its new, smaller budgets. One of those ways is to cut service and lay off drivers. How it cuts service and which drivers it lays off is probably a mystery to anyone who hasn’t worked at a transit agency. There are sensible methods to select bus runs and routes that should be cut, but there are likely nuances only a transit agency that’s been doing this for more than 50 years can handle. The other opportunity, public-private partnerships (PPP), is another response of the CTA to funding woes. The quality of the outcome of those agreements will depend heavily on the quality of the contract with the private business; there have been many successful PPPs but plenty of examples of PPPs that are disadvantageous to users.

Those who are joining in the protests on Wednesday should direct their attention to elected politicians that aren’t working on new ideas to fund transit, but also to reducing current local transportation planning’s ignorance of public transit. I’m talking mainly about the lack of efforts to reduce street congestion, wherein buses battle the same congestion as less efficient vehicles.

Pace showed what you can do with a free (open) lane of traffic: Their bus-on-shoulders pilot project is in high demand. Buses drive past stop-and-go congestion on I-55 (Stevenson Expressway) for 5 miles in the peak direction during rush hour:

“We’ve had standing passengers,” said agency spokeswoman Maggie Daly. “It’s a good problem to have.”

In 2010 through mid-2011, about 68 percent of trips arrived at their destinations on time. On-time performance now averages 92 percent, the agency said. Chicago Tribune

Pace will be adding buses to routes 755 (from southwest suburbs to UIC and the Illinois Medical District) and 855 (from the southwest suburbs to the Loop and the Magnificent Mile). Route 755 will be extended to Union Station. What a splendid experiment. I doubt anyone at Pace predicted an outcome that didn’t include more reliable bus service and high passenger demand.

Riders for Better Transit is taking a good approach by introducing legislation in Springfield that would increase the gas tax in northeastern Illinois and transfer the increments in revenue to Chicagoland transit.

Transit will have achieved equal footing with highways when highway builders have to start begging alongside transit operators for funding.

5 thoughts on “Protest against low transit funding on Wednesday is directed at the wrong audience”

  1. Agreed that the focus of protests should be on elected officials who control funding issues.  It is particularly tragic that many urban transit systems could be financially self-sufficient through the use of value capture.  Instead, the substantial increases in urban land values, created by public transit services, are almost entirely windfall profits to those few who are lucky enough (or shrewd enough) to own prime sites near transit stations and stops. 

    In Washington, DC, the Metrorail system cost about $10 billion to construct.  Conservative estimates indicate that more than $10 billion in land values have been created around the stations (after factoring out other causes of land price inflation).  Thus, the system could have been financially self-sustaining if value capture had been implemented from the outset.  It wasn’t — and Metrorail is short of funds.  Quality of service is declining and fares are being raised.  Transit is providing windfall profits to the rich while transportation services to the general public are jeopardized.

    1. Good point. The entire board is composed of appointed members, regardless of their community experience or running a transit agency. And the entire board is responsible for approving the Mayor’s “suggestion” for the position. It’s interesting, the way the CTA presidents have been picked. It’s actually the board’s responsibility to seek a president for the organization, but they’ve always (at least in the past 10 years) “hired” whomever the current Chicago mayor selects.

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