Saturday, February 17, 2007

Transit "Money Pits:" What Does The Data Show

A recent editorial in the Northwest Herald describes the CTA as a "money pit" and argues that the suburbs should not be asked to throw more money into this pit. Let's do a little number crunching to see if we can better understand who gets what under the RTA's Moving Beyond Congestion proposal outlined in its week-old final report (the "Report"). Is the CTA the "money pit" as portrayed by the Northwest Herald and various suburban public officials?

We'll use 2005 ridership numbers reported by the RTA and 2005 passenger mile and vehicle revenue mile information for the three service boards--Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace--from the National Transit Database. The 2007 and 2007 operating deficit numbers are from the RTA's 2007 Budget Book (available here). The capital numbers are drawn from the Report.

The data show that by just about every measure the suburban service boards--Metra and Pace--receive a higher level of public subsidy than the CTA. This applies to both capital and operating subsidies.

Apples to apples comparisons are difficult, of course. The service boards serve different regions. The CTA's service region is limited to most of Cook County. Pace and Metra serve the entire six-county region. The service boards also have different service mixes. Metra is rail only. Pace is bus only. The CTA has both trains and buses, with buses carrying roughly 60 percent of the passenger load.

Despite these differences, the data strongly suggest that on a comparative basis with the other service boards the CTA is not a "money pit." Two figures stand out. First, the current per trip operating subsidy that must be paid by the public through taxes and fees is over twice as high for Metra ($3.48/trip) and Pace ($3.05/trip) than it is for the CTA ($1.26/trip). Second, the per trip five-year capital subsidy is especially generous to Metra ($105.27/trip) relative to Pace ($19.42/trip) and the CTA ($15.80/trip).

(Note: By "per trip five-year capital subsidy" I have just divided the projected five-year capital allocations under the RTA's proposed capital plan by the 2005 service board ridership figures. This is to illustrate the relative intensity of the RTA's proposed capital investment under the Moving Beyond Congestion proposal. Since capital investments last for many years the actual capital cost per trip likely is much different (and beyond my capabilities to calculate)).

Here are the findings (all numbers in thousands). We start with the distribution of capital under the proposed five year capital plan and move on to look at how the operating deficit--and hence subsidies--are to be allocated in the 2007 budget and in 2009, the second year of the current two year operating plan:

Distribution of Capital (2007-2011)

By Service Board

CTA $7,284.1
Metra $8,105.6
Pace $718.4

Note: The CTA carries 80 percent of the transit customers in the region.

By Trip

CTA $15.80
Metra $105.27
Pace $19.42

Note: Pace gets a higher level of capital subsidy per passenger trip than the CTA even though Pace does not have any rail infrastructure. Rail infrastructure is much more capital intensive than buses, which run on public roads. Forty percent of the CTA ridership travels by rail.

By Passenger Mile

CTA $3.76
Metra $5.24
Pace $2.63

Note: Metra's all-rail service model likely accounts for higher figure.

By Vehicle Revenue Mile

CTA $48.48
Metra $211.86
Pace $19.46

Note: Metra's all-rail service model likely accounts for higher figure.

Allocation of 2007 Total Operating Deficit

By Trip

CTA $1.26
Metra $3.48
Pace $3.05

Note: This means that the public operating subsidy per ride is much less with respect to trips on CTA compared to trips on Pace and Metra.

By Passenger Mile

CTA $0.30
Metra $0.17
Pace $0.41

Note: Metra is a low-cost provider on a passenger mile basis in terms of operating expense. As shown above, however, on a passenger mile basis Metra service eats up a much larger share of capital dollars.

By Vehicle Revenue Mile

CTA $3.86
Metra $7.00
Pace $3.05

Allocation of 2009 Total Operating Deficit

By Trip

CTA $1.67
Metra $3.62
Pace $3.37

Note: The CTA's operating deficit per trip is projected to rise much faster than that of the other service boards. This is a disturbing trend that reflects the CTA's serious pension/collective bargaining problems.

By Passenger Mile

CTA $0.40
Metra $0.18
Pace $0.46

By Vehicle Mile

CTA $5.14
Metra $7.28
Pace $3.38

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