Monday, January 22, 2007

What's Wrong With CTA: Crain's Explains

It is heartening to see at least one local publication beginning to dig into the thorny issues surrounding the Moving Beyond Congestion initiative. Crain's has an article by Greg Hinz entitled "Crain's Investigates: What's Wrong with the CTA" that is worth reading.

The article's summary answer: "a crippling combination of aging infrastructure, funding shortfalls, questionable choices by CTA management, a string of bad luck and a historic rise in ridership — up 25% since 1999 — that has overwhelmed a rail system once considered nearly as reliable as cold in January."

The "question choices by CTA management" are preferring investments in new infrastructure (e.g., Circle Line) rather than in things less flashy but more likely to be of immediate benefit (e.g., signal system upgrades).

On interesting tidbit in the article is that the CTA appears slow to spend its available capital dollars. According to the article as of August 2006 the CTA had "$1.5 billion in available but unspent grant money — $495 million of that not even under contract." Unnamed CTA sources pointed the finger at the Illinois Department of Transportation, citing IDOT's "overly restrictive rules." Unnamed IDOT sources disputed the charge.

Someone should look into that issue, which might affect other service boards as well. IDOT is hardly a hotbed of innovation and creativity, so it is quite possible that the CTA has a point. On the other hand, it appears from the news reports that the CTA has had difficult in administering its capital program.

I suspect Auditor General William Holland will have something to say on these points. In the meantime, this article is worth a look.

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