The rumble of elevated trains may be Chicago's most distinctive sound, but unless rescue comes soon for the city's transit authority, it will be getting a little less frequent.
Under the "doomsday" scenario approved by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board last month, the agency will attempt to crawl out of a $55 million budget hole by eliminating dozens of bus and train routes, reducing service on all remaining lines to a Sunday schedule, and raising fares for those customers not using an automated card from $1.75 to $2.00.
It's a proposal that has commuters nervous and some lawmakers scrambling. But while Chicago is looking at a particularly dire situation right now, nearly all large public transit agencies are in tough fiscal straits.
Flat or declining revenue, combined with big increases for fuel and labor costs and, in some places, declining ridership, has created cash-strapped agencies and a rash of fare hikes and service cuts.
It's a situation that has public-transit advocates crying for more funding even as critics insist the agencies need to do a better job of paying for themselves, without increases in government subsidies. And some say that while multiple bailout options may help avert immediate disasters in places like Chicago, long-term solutions require a serious commitment to the idea of public transit.
"Transit systems have had a hard time over many, many years, and they've become very efficient," says Alan Horowitz, a civil-engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "We're providing an essential public service with transportation, and there still is a fairly large segment of the population that's dependent on transit. We have to decide as a society if this is something we want to support."
Transit agencies around the country have been feeling a pinch for some time, and customers are beginning to feel the cost. New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., have all raised fares in the past couple of years, while Philadelphia has been threatened with fare hikes for months. Pittsburgh cut service along with raising fares, and San Francisco is holding hearings this month to consider both.
"It's a trend happening around the country," says William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "You have relatively flat income streams, skyrocketing major expenses" - including fuel, liability insurance, healthcare, and pensions - "and it isn't very long before that puts you on a collision course that requires drastic actions."
Mr. Millar and other experts note that transportation benefits people beyond direct customers by reducing congestion. The 2005 Urban Mobility Report, released last week by the Texas Transportation Institute, indicated that traffic delays would be nearly 30 percent worse - or cost an additional 1.1 billion hours - without public transit.
Both fare hikes and service cuts tend to make riders leave, Millar says. Both combined - the current plan in Chicago - can be disastrous.
Many here are still hoping the state legislature will somehow come to the rescue before the July 17 deadline when the service cuts are scheduled to begin. Suggestions include Gov. Rod Blagojevich's proposal to erase the budget hole with a software tax on businesses, and another that would transfer the CTA's costly paratransit program to Pace, a largely suburban bus system, which hopes to be reimbursed through Medicaid.
"I have a lot of faith in the commitment of the legislature to do something about this," says Peter Skosey, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group. He's optimistic in part, he says, because the proposed cuts are so dire. "Doomsday is not a strong enough word."
But Mr. Skosey and others emphasize the need for something more than a short-term fix. The problems - which include funding that has lagged behind inflation and a formula for divvying up regional transit dollars that hasn't been updated in more than 20 years - are systemic. But pushes to change that formula have been controversial, due in part to fears in the suburbs that it would take money away from the transit services - Pace and Metra, the local train system - that they use.
That zero-sum conception needs to be changed, says Skosey, who believes more funding is needed for all transportation before the formula can be revisited.
Most in Chicago agree that the proposed plan would be a nightmare, though some see it as a bluff to get more funding. The CTA currently provides 1.5 million rides a day, and about two-thirds of Chicagoans who head to or from the city during rush hour use public transit.
"There would be a significant number of people who I don't think would be able to get to work ... and you'd see a substantial increase in traffic congestion throughout the region," says David Schulz, director of Northwestern University's Infrastructure Technology Institute and a former budget director for Chicago.
Mr. Schulz worries that the new schedule would lead to the kind of build-up on platforms that occurred during the 1979 blizzard, when trains filled up at their origin and had to pass by crowds of commuters without stopping.
Chicagoans, meanwhile, are keeping their hopes up for a last-minute solution.
"It would probably triple my commute time, and it's over an hour as it is," says Elaine Siegel, an attorney from Evanston, as she looks over work documents on her way home. Ms. Siegel currently rides the purple-line express "el" every day, one of the routes that would be eliminated. The cuts, she says, "would be a disaster."