[flickr]photo:6168877252[/flickr]Rey Colón, Forrest Claypool and Rahm Emanuel
Yesterday was a busy one for transit-related press events in Chicago. In the morning Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) President Forrest Claypool appeared at the Logan Square Blue Line station, my local stop, to announce their plans to clean and rehab 100 stations within the next year at a cost of $25 million. In the afternoon public transit workers and boosters railed against a Republican proposal to slash more than a third of federal highway and public transportation funding.
I’ve often wondered why the CTA has allowed some of its stations to become so shabby when other systems, like Washington, D.C.’s Metro, have much more appealing facilities. Logan Square was a good example, with crumbling plaster, a dingy, cave-like platform tunnel, and an eternally dripping platform tunnel ceiling. Dismal conditions like these breed discontent from regular customers and discourage potential riders from using transit instead of driving.
The Logan Square facelift is dramatic. The whole station seems cleaner and brighter, which makes riding the train seem like a much more dignified and attractive option than before. Much of the station has been power washed and repainted, there’s new lighting, crumbling walls and ceilings have been patched, escalators have been repaired, there are new signs throughout the station and trees and plantings in the plaza.
While CTA station repairs were previously done on an as-needed basis, this new holistic approach makes a lot of sense for the agency. Not only will it increase ridership but customers are much more likely to notice and appreciate improvements when they’re done all at once, rather than in a piecemeal fashion. “Bringing all the trades together at once is more efficient,” says CTA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan. “It’s the sudden impact of a wholesale cleaning with all hands on deck. The sparkling new station creates a ‘wow’ factor.”
At the press conference, an energetic Mayor Emanuel toured the station with Claypool and 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón, swarmed by news cameras, which he occasionally pushed away. Afterwards the Mayor addressed the crowd out in the plaza. “While it’s not a library, a CTA station is an anchor in a community,” he said. “It touches a neighborhood like almost nothing else in that neighborhood.”
Emanuel said Claypool’s cuts and reforms in the central bureaucracy have freed up resources which helped make the station rehabs possible. Since Emanuel took office, the agency the CTA has removed about 60 senior management positions and cut “padded” supply budgets, according to Claypool.
“[Commuters] do not experience the CTA in the central office,” Emanuel said. “They experience it at their station. Making this experience different will improve ridership, decrease traffic and make our lives better.” Claypool later stated that there has been a 22% percent increase in ridership at the Red Line’s Clybourn station since the station, located next to an Apple Store, was rehabbed via sponsorship money from the computer company.
The CTA is currently rehabbing the Blue Line California and Orange Line Halsted stations; Jarvis (Red Line), Cicero (Blue Line), 43rd (Green Line), Skokie (Yellow Line) and Kostner (Pink Line) are on deck for extreme makeovers. Updates on upcoming station rehabs are available here.
After hearing good news about transit at this event, I got a reality check at the afternoon rally. Last week the U.S. House passed a six-month extension of the surface transportation authorization bill last week, which would maintain federal transit funding at current levels until March. But a recent proposal from Republicans in the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee would cut 35 percent of funding for public transportation and all other surface transportation programs.
As part of a nationwide “Don’t X Out Public Transportation Day,” local leaders from the Regional Transportation Authority (which oversees the funding of Chicagoland’s three transit agencies, among other activites), advocacy groups and the Amalgamated Transit Union rallied at Union station’s Great Hall. Transportation for America-Illinois, which lobbies for better transportation and land use policies, organized the local event, attended by dozens of union members.
[flickr]photo:6168343099[/flickr] Ron Burke from the Active Transportation Alliance with members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308
Speaking at the rally, the RTA’s Joe Costello warned that the proposed cuts would mean less frequent transit service and possible loss of routes, a backwards step in an era when public transportation use is increasing. Gideon Bluestein from the Illinois chamber of commerce stressed the importance of transit in fighting congestion and making the region more attractive to new businesses.
The union’s Bob Kelly said, “Mass transit is totally bipartisan. You would think Congress would realize that. You want a jobs bill? Fund mass transit. You want to lower unemployment. Fund mass transit. You want people off food stamps? Fund mass transit. You want to reduce the dependency on foreign oil? Fund mass transit. You want to reduce emissions and smog and get cleaner air? It’s simple – fund mass transit.”
“Mass transportation solves all kinds of problems,” said Kelly. “The question is, does congress want to solve these problems? Chicago transit moves 1.5 million people on a daily basis but we must have the funding to do that.”
Afterwards Ron Burke, head of the Active Transportation Alliance told me, “The main issue is transit is already inadequately funded and for Congress to consider cutting funding is disturbing. Why is it transit seems to merit relatively little attention from our elected officials? I think it’s because transit riders are not well organized and we’re not viewed as a constituency by lawmakers. We’re trying to change that.”