First CTA fare hike in four years begins today


A Blue Line train towards O’Hare approaches the UIC-Halsted station. CTA has added more runs to the O’Hare branch, in its “plan to reduce crowding” (more commonly called “decrowding plan”), which are short-turned at UIC-Halsted station. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

The 55% of Chicago Transit Authority passengers who use passes will see an increase in their per-trip fare when they buy new passes or reload a Chicago Card Plus today. This is the first fare increase since January 2009. (See the full schedule of fares on CTA’s website.)

My friend Ryan Lakes, an architect, bike polo player, and West Town Bikes volunteer in Humboldt Park, strongly recommended I watch “Taken For A Ride“, a documentary about the systematic dismantling of rail transit in tens of cities nationwide, and the conversion of those routes to diesel buses manufactured by General Motors. I strongly recommend it, too. It was released in 1996, but watching it today shows me how transit history repeats itself.

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What is regional transit? RTA undertaking its own strategic plan update process


It’s rare to see CTA and Metra signs in the same place. The LaSalle Intermodal Transfer Center at LaSalle Street and Congress Parkway is a great step in making transit work “regionally”: it connects Rock Island District trains and multiple bus routes. It provides weak signage directing riders to the Jackson Blue Line station one block away. Photo by Anne Alt. 

“The Regional Transportation Authority values input of how to better the regional transit system. The RTA is conducting a survey to help gather ideas to inform the strategic planning process.” This quote is from its website promoting the process.

In August we published an article from two guest contributors about Metra and its own strategic plan update process. One critique was that Metra was doing this independently of the other “service boards” (Chicago Transit Authority and Pace) and its parent organization, RTA. You can provide your input on their strategic planning process with an online survey through January 25, 2013.

I reached out to RTA to understand why, again, there is an organization doing this planning process alone.

In a nutshell, there are separate (coordinated, not independent) strategic planning processes that are undertaken by the individual agencies because transit aims to strike a balance between addressing long-term, regional concerns and more near-term, local needs.

The scope of Service Board strategic planning initiatives usually encompasses operating and service provision issues—issues for which the service boards are experts. For example, this might include developing or revising service planning standards—at what level of demand should we increase service or build an infill station? Does the agency have enough reliable vehicles in its fleet to provide the desired levels of service envisioned for the next 2-3 years? These are the nature of issues for which the service boards have the most experience and local knowledge by which to develop plans and policies.

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Transit benefit reaches parity with parking benefit, plus other new laws


Transit users whose employers provide pre-tax benefit programs stand to pay less taxes in 2012 and 2013. Photo by Erin Nekervis. 

January 1st always comes with new laws. This January 1st was a little different than most in that the United States was closing in on the “fiscal cliff”. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 is expected to be signed into law by President Obama and includes provisions that raise taxes on a majority of Americans, and prolongs extended unemployment benefits, among other changes to the tax code. A major change, fought over for years by sustainable transportation advocates, is the coming yearlong parity of the transit commuter benefit with the parking benefit. These two programs deduct the cost of a monthly transit or parking pass before calculating taxes owed (“pre-tax benefit”).

The American Public Transportation Association released a statement:

For 2013, there is no longer a financial bias in the federal tax code against public transit use. This has always been an issue of fairness, and public transit advocates are pleased that the federal tax code will again provide transit riders with the same tax benefits according to those who drive to work.

The change will be retroactive to January 1, 2012, so workers whose employers implement this program will be able to receive tax benefits for any passes they purchased through the program last year. Unfortunately, the benefit expires December 31, 2013. This isn’t the first time that the transit commuter benefit will expire while the parking benefit remains. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA 2009, also known as the “stimulus”) raised the transit commuter benefit from $120 to $230 per month, but that expired on December 31, 2011. The parking benefit remained at $230 per month.

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There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities


A South Shore train travels between northern Indiana and downtown Chicago. It’s not a member of the Regional Transportation Authority of Illinois. Photo by Seth Anderson. 

The Regional Transportation Authority is a financial administrator and cooperative service planner at the top of the Chicagoland transit hierarchy. Or at least it’s supposed to be. But transit in Chicagoland doesn’t act regionally, and hasn’t for a long time (if ever). Here’s the evidence:

1. Suburban county board member perpetuates the myth that Metra = suburbs and CTA = Chicago

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin is quoted in the Daily Herald about an “impasse” in how to distribute some funds amongst the RTA’s three member agencies. The CTA normally would get 99% of this particular pot, but the RTA is proposing it only gets 95%. (Note that CTA provides 82% or rides and receives 49% of region’s funding.)

“The money is collected from all the taxpayers in the region, the majority of whom reside in the suburbs. Why should we subsidize the CTA more than we already are?” he asked. “They seem to care little for their neighbors in the suburbs.”

Each transit agency operates routes and stations in and outside the Chicago city limits. Each has connecting service within and between municipalities, Chicago and not Chicago. Thousands of Chicagoans take Metra daily for work and other purposes to other points within and without Chicago. Thousands of people who don’t live in Chicago ride the CTA. It’s likely true that a majority of Metra’s weekday passengers don’t live in Chicago, though it doesn’t matter where they come from.

Typecasting transit agencies and their respective passengers based on the attributes of where they live and not the place of where they live – the place matters in order to know where service should go – inhibits the slight progression transit has been making in the region in the past decade.

RTA Chairman John Gates’s heart is in the right place when he said, “This is a regional agency, we have to reach a regional consensus.”

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Comment of the day: What is the role of a regional transportation authority?


Photo of a Metra Electric train at Millennium Station by Jim Watkins. Mike Payne has proposed using the Metra Electric system as the Gray Line, run in “rapid transit” fashion by the CTA.

We posted on Tuesday about Metra’s online survey and open houses to gather public input which will help the commuter rail agency develop its strategic plan.

Randy Neufeld commented on that post:

This is an example of what is broken. Metra should not do a strategic plan. Metra, CTA, and PACE should do a strategic plan together. What’s next, competing in Congress and Springfield to fund competing strategic plans? RTA and CMAP should require a unifed transit plan for the region. Transit funding is in crisis. This is no time for Metra to plan solo.

The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) has existed since 1974 and has its own strategic plan (“The Way Forward”). From its mission statement: “The RTA’s primary responsibilities became [in a 1983 reorganization] financial and budget oversight of CTA, Metra and Pace, and regional transit planning issues”.

The three service boards operate in a well-defined geographic and economic region, serving the same customers, the same communities, connect with each other at the same stations, and even have similar routes. They should be “acting regionally”.

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CDOT installs new bike parking at six CTA and Metra stations


Bike parking for more than 40 bicycles at the 57th Street entrance to the 55th-56th-57th Street Metra station. 

CDOT installed in March and April  a combination of regular u-racks and double deck bike racks at six CTA and Metra stations around the city and will hold a press conference at the 95th Red Line station today at noon. The coolest part of the project, in my humble opinion, is that I got to analyze and recommend the stations that would receive new bike parking. The bike racks are installed at the following stations, all sheltered, from north to south:

  • Howard Red Line – Rogers Park – Double deck
  • Loyola Red Line – Rogers Park – Double deck
  • Clybourn Metra – Bucktown – U-racks
  • Western Orange Line – Brighton Park – Double deck
  • 55th-56th-57th Street Metra – Hyde Park – U-racks
  • 95th Red Line – Roseland/Longwood Manor – Double deck

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