Modified version of Chicagoist comment.
I realize that I’m shouting to the breeze, but man, most of you folks don’t know much about how we pay for transit. Some common themes, and answers:
What? Why do we already pay too much for awful service?
Your fares pay about half the cost of running CTA service. Taxpayers (local sales tax) cover the rest. And the fact is, the cost of operations is increasing three times faster than tax revenue. When your cost of living goes up while your salary stays flat, you gotta make cuts.
Yeah, the trains and buses and slow, unreliable, and dirty. You know why? Because every year that we’ve played this budget crisis game, CTA has ended up spending money allocated for cleaning/repairs on daily operations instead. Basic maintenance has been put off for years, and it’s starting to show, big time.
The trains elsewhere are great, and they make money!
No mass transit agency in the world makes sufficient profit on operations to cover the cost of capital improvements. Those glorious transit systems elsewhere rely on generous tax subsidies: the Parisian transit authority gets FIVE TIMES more in tax subsidies than its equivalent here. Pick up the papers in NYC, LA, SF, DC, Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Cleveland, Columbus, Atlanta, wherever: those transit agencies are also running out of money. Perhaps not as fast as ours, but nonetheless. (Philly’s SEPTA, in fact, is about to vote on what they also call “the doomsday budget,” unless the state bails them out. However, their governor and mayor have made saving transit their #1 priority, unlike here, where Blago and Richie lust after a vast new welfare state and a literally-colossal construction boondoggle.)
Let’s look at the one fully “privatized” passenger transportation industry in the USA: commercial airlines. Anyone who thinks that the airlines provide exquisite service at reasonable prices, please raise your hands. I thought not. And yet even this marvel of private-sector efficiency can’t turn a profit: in its first century, the airline industry earned $18 billion in profits — when it wasn’t chalking up $32 billion in losses. Airlines are so consistently awash in red ink that no less than Warren Buffett rued, “if I’d been at Kitty Hawk in 1903 when Orville Wright took off, I would have been farsighted enough, and public-spirited enough — I’d owe this to future capitalists — to shoot him down.”
Privatize! Fire the bums! Sell more ads!
We tried private operations of the CTA. Didn’t work; all those companies went bankrupt way back in 1947, which is how we got the CTA in the first place. Oh, and CTA can’t just pull a United Airlines and kill its pensions and benefits; that’s illegal. As for waste and graft, we the taxpayers already paid for a a giant audit of CTA, RTA, Metra, and Pace, courtesy of the state Auditor General. Finding: “the needs are real, the problems are real.” By almost any standard, our transit agencies are managing money pretty well. Yes, pensions in particular need a great big fix, but they’re so underfunded that one can hardly blame them for bankrupting CTA. Oh, and shuttering CTA headquarters tomorrow* wouldn’t even come close to filling this budget hole.
(In fact, I was recently in S.F., where a local newspaper ran a graph showing Chicago’s administrative overhead costs as far lower than LA’s or SF’s — and comparable to NYC, which theoretically would benefit from vast economies of scale.)
* Annual occupancy costs at the new HQ are lower than they were in the rented Mart space; the building was built with federal capital funds — see below — and CTA, as a state-chartered public agency, doesn’t pay property taxes on buildings it owns but does in rented space.
Advertising is not a major revenue source for transit agencies. Even auctioning off naming rights wouldn’t do much; a failed deal to rename a prime downtown station in Boston yielded just $160K a year. At that price, even renaming every Loop station would cover just 2% of CTA’s budget gap.
The Feds/Olympics will make everything better. Why all the fancy new construction?
Yes, the Feds pay half of construction (“capital”) costs for (a few) big new shiny things like Brown Line reconstruction, but they don’t pay anything for daily operations or maintenance. This is kind of like Mom paying for new clothes once Junior’s outgrown them, but refusing to pay to wash or mend the ones Jr. already has. No wonder he’s wearing flashy new shoes over hole-y socks.
You think the Feds will bail us out in 2016? Fat chance. Again, they only pay part of the construction costs; Salt Lake City, Vancouver, and other Olympic cities still had to hike local taxes big time to fund transit operations and construction. Oh, and CTA kind of needs money now, not in nine years — remember, the whole system grinds to a halt in October if no action is taken.
Cut off-peak service, don’t raise rush hour fares!
Bus and train drivers, like most of us, work full-time, eight-hour shifts. Hiring people just for rush hour is nearly impossible — would you work a split shift, 6 AM to 7 PM, without getting paid for 10 AM to 4 PM? Since the drivers are already paid to be there during rush hour, no additional drivers need to be hired for off-peak service. So, off-peak service is cheaper for CTA to provide. (Incidentally, day pass riders ride more off-peak, hence the day pass discount.)
That’s it! I’m gonna get a car!
Yeah, you and a hundred thousand other people, too. You think traffic’s bad, and parking and gas expensive? Just you wait.
Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine. Whine. (Repeat ad nauseam.)
Shut up and do something already. Visit SaveChicagolandTransit.com, read up, and take action. (Note: I am not materially affiliated with that site or with any transit agency.)