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Why Chicago transit crisis nears

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 1981



Chicago

Many of the close to 1 million Chicago area residents who rely on public transportation for daily communting are readying cars, bicycles, roller skates, and walking shoes -- just in case.

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The area's six-county Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) hovers near bankruptcy and a consequent shutdown.

State legislators and citizens have known for several months that the crisis was coming. The combination of double-digit inflation, less-than-expected revenue from the state sales tax, and a reluctance by transit leaders and politicians to raise fares or taxes have brought it to a head.

Even as the possibility of a temporary last-minute bailout by the state legislature exists at this writing, finding a workable long-term solution remains a problem.

Both fares and hourly pay for employees in the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), by far the largest part of the RTA system, are the highest in the country. Chicagoans pay 80 cents a ride and transit drivers earn $25,000 (about one-third more than their New York City counterparts) after 3 1/2 years of work. to meet payrolls and other immediate operating costs, RTA and CTA officials have long deferred needed repairs and stalled in paying off bills. The RTA, which has kept going only by a state advance on sales tax receipts, disbursed the last of its cash this week and expects to accumulate at least a $150 million deficit by SEptember.

Chicago is not alone in its transit dilemma. Other major cities are caught in the same fiscal squeeze, heightened by the Reagan administration's proposed phaseout of federal operating subsidies by 1985.

But in Chicago's case, the comfort of knowing that others are in the same trou ble and the widespread understanding here of the causes of the crisis do not seem to be helping state leaders find a solution.

Much of the public focus here has centered on which group is going to give now much first. Just this Week the RTA board voted down a proposed 10 cent hike in fares and elimination of weekend service. Some downstate legislators immediately branded the action as a failure by the state's major metropolitan area to make even a symbolic gesture to support itself. Although rescue proposals abound in the legislature at Springfield, most would place the increased tax burden squarely on the Chicago metropolitan area and few are judged as having enough support to pass. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, accusing the legislature of "blackmail" and "selfishness," has vowed that if necessary Chicago will go it alone by breaking away from the RTA and imposing a new corporate tax on Chicago industry.

It is generally agreed by transit experts that althoughfares could be raised and service cuts made. the primary obligation for rescue at this point falls on the state. Some say the friction that exists in Illinois between suburban and downstate legislators on the one hand and Chicago lawmakers on the other must be dissolved before a genuine long-term solution can be found.

"New York state doesn't write off its major city," notes Lawrence Sucsy, a former CTA board member and a member of the transportation committee of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council. "I think the perception of those living downstate and elsewhere outside Chicago of the benefits they receive from a economically healthy city is really very poor and has got to change."

However unique this city-state relationship, many other cities with transit trou bles are similarly concerned that their states my not fill in the average 13 percent budget gap which will be left if the federal government trims its subsidies.

The federal government tends to be more understanding of city needs than some state governments are," says Kenneth Slapin, chairman of the National League of Cities transportation committee. "You don't eliminate the public sector cost or save money by passing the buck from Washington to the states."

While roughly 80 percent of public transportation costs now go for labor, few experts in the field see cutbacks as a possibility. In Chicago, for instance, CTA drivers have vowed to strike if any attempt is made to trim their wages or benefits.