Transit woes still haunt Chicagoans

The latest twists in the effort to rescue metropolitan Chicago's deficit-ridden transit system from a threatened shutdown have been front page news here for the better part of the last three months.

In a daily saga reminiscent of "The Perils of Pauline," Chicagoans have read all about the system's skyrocketing operating costs (charts of expenses vs. income look like the Matterhorn next to a flat desert). They've been swamped with news of myriad funding packages proposed in the Illinois Legislature but never agreed upon by both rural and suburban lawmakers and by Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne. And they've been treated to a variety of opinions about who deserves most of the blame for the failure to pass state rescue plan before the Legislature adjourned June 30.

In a few days since then, fares have taken a hefty jump -- at 90 cents a ride , the Chicago Transit Authority charges more than any system in the country -- and Mayor Byrne has proposed a 1 cent hike in the city's sales tax and a new 1 percent city tax on services to take effect Aug. 1.

While the action may look like a rescue plan and has probably led some commuters to heave a sigh of relief that the crisis is at last over, longtime observers of city transit problems and Chicago officials agree that the measures are both partial and temporary. Transit troubles in Chicago, just as in most large cities around the country, are in a sense just beginning.

A recent survey of 100 major cities by the US Conference of Mayors indicates that two-thirds of them plan fare hikes of some kind and that close to half intend to cut services. Developing new sources of local tax revenue was listed as the No. 1 priority by each city participating.

Consider the facts in Chicago's transit situation:

The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) expects a deficit of $130 million to $150 million by Sept. 30. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) alone has accumulated $43 million in unpaid bills. Labor costs, shooting up at a faster pace than inflation, have risen by more than 125 percent over the last decade. Chicago bus drivers earn about one-third more than their New York City counterparts and average higher wages than any other transit employees in the country. And the pinch from the Reagan administration's planned phase-out of federal operating subsidies -- which would mean $80 million a year less for the RTA -- hasn't even begun.

No one known what dent the higher fares will make on the transit system's fiscal problems because many riders may opt for another way to get to work. Traditionally fares have covered almost half of the system's operating costs, but lately the percentage has been slipping. Although Mayor Byrne's tax proposals are likely to get city Council approval and bring as much as $200 million a year to CTA coffers, she readily concedes that the service tax is likely to be challenged in court and that probably no funds would be available for use for several months.

Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson has left open the possibility that the Legislature may appropriate some subsidy when it meets again in the fall. Mayor Byrne, who rejected all legislative offers this yar as insufficient and as not giving Chicago enough control over its own system, has said she would welcome that help. But many feel her earlier vow to "go it alone" if the Legislature failed to come through with the right package grew into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Though the governor accused the mayor of not wanting to accept needed reforms of the transit system along with the dollar help she wanted, Mayor Byrne has made such reform a condition of her new city tax help for the CTA. An outside transportation consultant will be hired for that job and will study such possibilities as zoned fares and duplication of jobs within the city and regional transit systems. the chairmen of botht the CTA and the RTA now receive 30 percent more in salary than the governor of Illinois, and some critics, including local columnist Irv Kupcinet, have suggested that board members be asked to serve pro bonom as local school board and park district members do rather than be awarded "lush" salaries.

Chicago urbanologist Pierre de Vise, who charges in a new report that underused, mismanaged suburban routes and "irresponsible" union contracts are key reasons for current transit difficulties, suggests that transit workers, like other municipal employees, be held to wage increases in the future equaling one-half the cost of living hike. that would bring transit wages in line with their private sector counterparts in about 10 years, he says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.