Monday, March 5, 2007

Slow Byrne

Dennis Byrne, the Chicago Tribune columnist, is the kind of guy who gives dyspepsia a bad name. The ascerbic and put-upon tone of his columns bring to mind a suburbanite hunkered down in a bomb shelter plastered with Goldwater posters, convinced that the city is the den of all evils.

Byrne's March 5th column is entitled "Transit 'Reform,' Yet Again." The theme of the column is that the City of Chicago has stood in the way of meaningful reform of the region's transit system and that "there is no one willing to crack down on the CTA--the main source of the RTA's problems--because no one dares take on the city's power, meaning Richard M. Daley's power."

Byrne is never one to let the facts, such as years of underfunding of the CTA's capital needs relative to Metra and the much higher capital and operating subsidies supporting Metra and Pace riders--mostly suburbanites--relative to CTA riders, stand in the way of a good jeremiad.

Nor does Byrne acknowledge that the CTA has been able to increase its ridership since 1995 even though the population in its service area has dropped, while Pace has lost ridership during the same period even though the population growth in its collar county service area has grown substantially. (See here at pg. 45 of 50) So much for the CTA's purported incompetence in running a transit system relative to the other service boards.

Simply put, the CTA is the "main source" of the RTA's problems because the CTA still carries almost 80 percent of the public transit customers in the region. The CTA does have serious labor cost problems, among other huge challenges, but to single out the CTA and pummel it as Byrne has done is just grandstanding for Byrne's hoped-for suburban readership constitutency.

Byrne's assessment is important, however, not because it is based on the facts but because it reflects a powerful strain of nativist suburban opinion that will be just as big an obstacle to meaningful change in the regional transportation system by the General Assembly as the purported greediness of the City of the Chicago:

This is more than a matter of rivalries between agencies. It is a reflection of the deeper political divisions that drive the agencies' actions and inactions. There is no one willing to crack down on the CTA--the main source of the RTA's problems--because no one dares take on the city's power, meaning Richard M. Daley's power.

And Daley can't reform, even if he wanted to, the CTA, as he claims to have done with the schools and the housing authority, without the legislature's help, meaning our money. But the state isn't in any better shape with Gov. Rod Blagojevich's extravagant and utopian promises for other pet projects. The pressure is on.

There'll be a lot of talk about giving the RTA a stronger hand, to improve coordination and so forth. But will it be all talk? More important, will a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature really be willing to step over the line and crack down on the CTA, especially in light of Daley's landslide re-election?

Or will the legislature again just reshuffle the organization chart to make it look like something has happened, while continuing business as usual?

Let's hope that the divisive spirit of Pate Phillips that Bryne conjures up with his column does not return to haunt the General Assembly and prevent meaningful change to how the region funds, operates and governs its public transit system.

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