A preview of, and reaction to, doomsday cuts

Just got back from Philadelphia, where SEPTA has announced:

  • 25% fare hike, to $2.50 base fare in town
  • No more weekend service
  • and 20% weekday service cuts on all lines, mostly by combining express/local runs on commuter lines and cutting evening/midday service sharply (maybe to once an hour on many lines)

…unless the state bails out their $60 million deficit. The talk there is that emergency funding this year is likely, followed by a restructuring next year that will fold SEPTA, the ports, the airports, etc. into a superregional agency with new funding. As a general principle, I support regional solutions — especially where opportunities to cross-subsidize transit arise (as in the obvious solution of using road tolls to pay for transit) — but the super-agency could exacerbate the current situation where the suburbs get to control Philadelphia’s transportation priorities.

Transit will continue on its death spiral without solid new funding sources. The currently appalling level of service in Philly — half-hour headways and $5.50 fares for a 20-minute ride to the airport, one subway line already abandoned on weekends — surely has had much to do with its downtown’s inability to maximize labor force accessibility and thus compete as a central employment hub.

Part of our argument here in Chicago should draw upon the Chicago Central Area Plan‘s finding that transit is the #1 economic draw for businesses to the central area, and that downtown Chicago is the powerhouse of the Chicago region’s economy. Without a vibrant and lively central city, Chicago is just another rust belt relic — and without transit, central Chicago will choke on traffic. Our entire region’s economic competitiveness hinges on adequate city transit.

The CTA also makes a pretty good case (large PDF) that its structural deficit is merely one symptom of a broken funding mechanism.

  • Suburban Cook subsidizes money-losing long-distance Metra and Pace service in the collar counties. Each collar county transit trip receives over $3 in public subsidy, even while residents of the collar counties pay almost nothing for transit ($0.0025 on the dollar). Indeed, 52% of subsidies for collar county Metra service come from suburban Cook. It’s not just city vs. suburbs — the inner suburbs are getting fleeced as well. In an ideal world, Cook’s five million residents would be able to speak up for ourselves and beat back exurban free-riding, but alas, Springfield doesn’t work that way.
  • CTA and Pace would be in okay financial shape if not for ballooning (and unsubsidized) paratransit costs. Hence, paratransit-free Metra has enough cash to pad its capital budget for extensions to the open countryside beyond exurbia, while CTA and Pace go beggaring.
  • the RTA funding formula was broke from the beginning; transit ridership has steadily fallen (by 30%!) since it (and its strict farebox recovery ratios) was instituted. Most other states fund transit at a state or regional level, not at what’s effectively a city level.
  • Transit must grow to properly serve the region; the TTI congestion study estimated that regional transit ridership must grow by 241,000 customers a day — almost the equivalent of increasing CTA rail ridership by 60%, or Metra ridership by 80%.
  • The Loop would truly choke without CTA, which has 34-39% market share of inbound traffic from the west/northwest/southwest (remarkable considering the relative youth of the Orange Line) and 66% market share headed from the north lakefront. Market share along the south lakefront is a paltry 18%, which could be markedly improved if Metra and CTA didn’t both feel the need to offer duplicative (and inferior) services along that corridor.
  • CTA funding has lagged inflation by 29% — but overall regional transit funding has lagged by 9.7%. Of course CTA is missing out on the sales tax boom in the suburbs, but overall, the sales tax is not keeping pace with economic growth in the region. Consumer goods and services make up the same proportion of the economy as they did in 1980, but the “goods” part of that (which pays sales tax) has fallen by over half. The “services,” which don’t pay sales tax, have increased substantially. Thus, sales tax receipts are stagnant even while the economy grows. (See CTBA’s report.)
  • No one seems to have remembered that federal operating subsidies — once to the tune of $200 million in current dollars a year — have disappeared.

Sadly, of course, all of this nuance will be lost on CTA riders and probably even on the General Assembly. All they will do is yell at CTA.