Bombardier building 706 rail cars for CTA and Congress’s view of transit

Bombardier, of Montréal, Québec, announced via a press release on its website Wednesday, July 20, 2011, that the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), has exercised an option in its contract for the 5000-series rail cars that expands the number of cars on order by 300, to 706 cars.

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You may have seen the CTA testing its new train cars – at least one of the cars is painted like in the photo above. The first of the incoming new cars will be used on the Blue Line. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

According to the CTA’s first press release about ordering these trains in 2006, 200 cars were initially ordered, then another 206, and now the final 300 cars available in the original contract.

This announcement will no doubt bring unwarranted criticism against the CTA, centering around the CTA’s budget and how the agency must cut service and raise fares to stay operational. “If the CTA has $933 million to pay for new train cars, how come it doesn’t have money to run a bus route past 7 PM?”

Every transit dollar comes with restrictions

We must entertain this discussion at each and every “transit doomsday.”

Simply put, federal and state tax dollars pay for the majority of train and bus purchases and station construction (capital expenditures), but the federal government pays nothing to help the CTA run trains, drive buses, and pay workers (operational expenditures). The CTA must gather operation dollars from fareboxes, advertising revenue, and local sales taxes. Occasionally the CTA board allows the president to transfer money from its “capital account” to the daily operating account – this is not a good practice.

Federal transportation bill puts transit in flux

Not only does transit sustain criticism at home, it also receives a heap of denunciation in Congress where elected representatives are debating the language of the next multi-year surface transportation bill (the current one expired over 660 days ago). Representative John Mica of Florida is the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has announced his plan where he says that “transit will have to do more with less.”

As if transit agencies around the country haven’t been doing that.

While Mica has alluded to keeping the current 20% ratio transit projects receive from Highway Trust Fund revenue, the overall revenue will be reduced by 35%. The best discussion of the House-proposed bill is on The Transport Politic.

The last time the CTA purchased new train cars was in 1993 to coincide with the opening of the Orange Line. The CTA is operating train cars almost 40 years old, beyond their intended 25-year life span. Metra and Pace will also be affected.

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CTA passengers wait on the old Belmont L station platform (Red, Brown, Purple Lines) that was replaced thanks to 80% of the cost paid for by Federal Transit Administration “New Starts” funding. Photo by Erin Nekervis.

Legislation summary

Note that the House has not released, as of Friday, July 22, 2011, the full text of their proposed legislation. Read summaries from:

More on the new CTA train cars

Construction and final delivery of the 306 additional train cars is likely several years away. That gives time for the CTA to modify the new cars based on changes I suggested in two Steven Can Plan articles:

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