Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Doomsday Is Looking Better Every Day
Revised CTA Budget
The CTA Board has adopted a revised doomsday budget that will go into effect in mid-September if the State does not come through with a public transit funding package that will deliver more operating subsidies to the RTA and the service boards. (Stories here, here and here and full CTA details accessible through here.)
From a rider's perspective the revised CTA plan is a definite improvement over the doomsday plan from May. (May plan accessible here.) Fare increases are under 15% for Chicago Card holders and roughly the same for pass holders. There will be no fare increase for the disabled, elderly and students holding discounted fare cards. Cash payers would be the hardest hits, with the base bus and train fares going up 25% and the rush hour train fare going up 50%.
Fewer bus routes are slated for elimination (39), down from the 63 routes targeted for elimination in the earlier plan. The Skokie Swift and the Evanston Express are both spared extinction. The overall service reduction would be 8% rather than 13% under the earlier plan. The estimated loss in ridership is 100,000 per day (6.3%), down from a projected loss of 260,000 riders (16.3%) in the earlier plan.
Reading The Reaction
What is striking about the CTA Board's action is the lack of public outcry over the prospect of significant service reductions and fare increases that will occur in a little more than a month. The Tribune story on the doomsday budget was not on the lists of the most read or the most emailed stories. As of 8 p.m. there was all of one comment on Monifa Thomas' "The Ride" blog for the Sun-Times. The CTA Tattler sticks the news of the adoption of the doomsday budget in its list of news links. There is not even a separate blog entry on the subject.
The issue of public transit funding obviously has not struck a nerve, especially in the less affluent neighborhoods whose residents presumably will bear the brunt of these changes. Compare the ho hum response in these neighborhoods to the strong response to several recent instances of alleged police brutality.
The business community does not seem up in arms by the prospect of an 8% scaling back of the CTA's system. As far as I know no politician or community organizer has been channeling the spirit of Saul Alinsky and working to get folks all charged up on the transit funding issue. A video of the CTA Board meeting (available here) shows a room full of well behaved and well dressed people, a good number of whom work for the CTA. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are nowhere to be seen. Nor does it appear that there was even a desultory protest by community members.
Putting The Natural Monopoly To Rest
What does this muted reaction to public transit "doomsday" tell us about that system? The lesson may be that transit no longer fits into the category of an essential public service, a role it might have played 60 years ago when the CTA was first organized. At that time, the percentage of the population that was transit dependent was much higher than it is today. People on the whole were less affluent so cars were out of the question for many. A larger portion of the population traveled by "mass" transit, which made transit a much more vital underpinning of the local economy.
In that environment, the "natural monopoly" model that viewed public transit as a sort of public utility made some sense. For a country coming off of its second world war, the top-down, one size fits all approach to transportation that the CTA delivered and continues to embody today made practical and cultural sense.
Now, however, most of the CTA's ridership is comprised of "choice" riders who have alternative forms of transportation. The social justice dimension of mainline public transit is much less compelling now that the population is more affluent on the whole and the disabled community is served by its own paratransit system.
The breakdown of the old mass transit/natural monopoly/social service model is a slow and painful process, as evidenced by the steady shrinkage of the CTA bus system over the past few decades through a wrenching series of service cuts.
At the same time, to the extent the CTA no longer is defined by the old mass transit/natural monpoly/social service model it has more opportunity for market innovation and creativity. For example, if the CTA can shut down 39 bus lines in one whack it can shut down and/or realign individual bus routes to respond to demographic changes without the fear of triggering huge community outcries. Fare increases at about the rate of inflation will be possible without the controversies of the past, allowing a greater degree of financial stability. The CTA can focus on improving the quality of its service rather than just putting out as much service as possible.
The fact that the latest doomsday budget has aroused no great controversy indicates that the rhetoric used by the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents was too deeply rooted in the natural monopoly/public service model of the past. That rhetoric of "devastating cuts" and "massive increases" and "doomsday budgets" simply didn't inspire people, who now live in an environment where there are ready alternatives to public transit--the private automobile for the most part, but also walking and biking--that are at least as attractive as public transit.
It is a different world. Maybe folks are willing to take the pain of an 8 percent service cut and a 15 percent fare increase if the slow zones go away, the buses and trains are relatively clean, they can get accurate bus/train arrival times on their computers and cellphones, and their taxes don't increase.
We may not agree with that outcome or the general public's sense of priorities. But surely after the many months of the Moving Beyond Congestion publicity effort and the many editorials supporting more funding for public transit, we can't claim that the public lacked information about what was and is at stake if the CTA and Pace shrink and their fares increase.
If the General Assembly comes through with more money and the CTA and Pace rescind their service cuts and fare increases, there will be a short time for celebration in some quarters. But the funding crises will be back soon enough unless the RTA and the service boards deal with the fact that for the most part public transit is no longer a vital public service akin to water treatment or public hospitals. The riding public has more options and on the whole more money than the riding public of 60 years ago. Rolling out the same old rhetoric about devastating cuts and doomsday budgets just won't cut it anymore.
Maybe the shrinkage of the CTA (and Pace) will embolden private entities to offer transit-like service. There may be a market niche waiting to be filled for services such as jitney cabs, subscription van service, and the like, that are less pricey than taxis or private autos but better than the large CTA bus. This is especially so if the price of parking in Chicago goes up significantly faster than the rate of inflation.
The coverage of the CTA's tentative agreement with its labor unions makes no mention whether the CTA will now be able to contract for such alternative transportation services on its own. We must assume that the CTA cannot.
If the CTA cannot provide such transportation services, it would be curious to see how the City of Chicago would respond to private sector initiatives. After all, the exclusive public transit franchise agreement between the City and the CTA is a relic from the natural monopoly era. If the City can run trolley service in competition with the CTA maybe it will be willing to let other entities run competing services as well. The City might find this to be a more palatable alternative to ever greater municipal subsidization of the CTA. Real estate transfer tax today, what tomorrow?
Maybe the SB 572 tax increase or the poor saps who gamble in a Chicago casino will prop up the status quo for awhile longer. But mining Springfield for increased subsidies for public transit is likely to get tougher before it gets easier.