Making the riders pay

October 29, 2008

Adam Turl picks apart the distortions and lies that city and state officials are spreading to push through transit fare increases.

"THE CTA's still got to raise fares even though there's an increase in passengers? Is somebody stealing money from the CTA, or does the head of CTA not know what he's doing?"

Those were the words of Chicagoan Rudy Home after the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) announced plans to make working-class commuters pay for a budget shortfall caused by insufficient local, state and federal funding and the worsening economic crisis.

CTA President Ron Huberman's fare increase scheme would go into effect in January 2009. Under the plan, full fare for a bus ride will rise 25 cents to $2, and full fare for trains will also climb 25 cents to $2.25. A 30-day pass would now cost $90 (instead of $75). Certain fares will increase by 50 cents.

Chicagoans already pay more in public transit costs than residents of any other major U.S. city. The national average for a transit fare is $1.53. Plus, there has been a surge in passengers, especially since gas prices skyrocketed over the course of the year. But CTA officials insist they need still higher fares.

Fare hikes and cuts to transit service in Chicago will impact hundreds of thousands of residents
Fare hikes and cuts to transit service in Chicago will impact hundreds of thousands of residents

To justify the fare hikes, transit officials as well as local and state politicians have used a series of obfuscations and outright lies--from claiming that the system doesn't have enough money to scapegoating senior citizens for the budget crisis.

Some of the CTA's problems are real--tax revenues will likely decline and fuel costs have risen--but officials are exaggerating some factors and completely ignoring others, such as a crisis at the root of funding (or not funding) public transportation.

The claim, of course, is that there isn't any money to help the transit system. But this simply isn't true. The CTA itself just spent $530 million to rehab the Brown Line on the elevated train system. The Chicago Tribune has already reported signs of construction problems at the new train platforms.

But more to the point, the question that should be asked is why the city spent a half-billion dollars renovating Brown Line platforms, which tend to serve relatively more affluent and less multiracial areas, if the CTA was so close to a major budget crisis?

What you can do

Opponents of the CTA fare hike are organizing people to attend the latest hearing on October 29. The hearing starts at 6 p.m. at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake Street (near the Clinton Pink Line and Green Line El Stops).

Patterns of profitable real estate development and gentrification provide the answer.

This isn't to argue against new train platforms. But the federal government helped bankroll the project, and these funds could have been allocated to balance the budget of the entire system and improve transit across the city.

The city of Chicago could also step into the breach and make up the funding difference. It just privatized Midway Airport--Chicago's second airport--in a $2.5 billion deal. But Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has other plans for that money.

Fixing up schools? Pay increases for teachers and firemen?

No. The city and the state have guaranteed $650 million in taxpayer money for possible cost overruns if Chicago is successful in its bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

City officials have already announced plans to borrow $85 million to buy Michael Reese Hospital on the South Side--in order to shut it down and construct an Olympic Village, even before Chicago has been made the host city. This figure alone would cover three-quarters of the projected CTA budget shortfall.

WHAT SHOULD be clear is that there is still plenty of money for some things--Olympic bids, real estate speculation and gentrification--despite the economic crisis. But when it comes to working people getting to school and work, there's no money.

The CTA also justified the fare hike in part based on projections for increased costs for low-sulfur diesel fuel. However, these projections were based on skyrocketing fuel prices over the summer. Those prices have since plummeted back down to Earth.

In addition, CTA officials, Illinois Republicans and the Chicago Tribune have all implied that part of the blame lies with a program instituted earlier in the year to give free rides to senior citizens and low-income disabled people. Leaving aside the fact that senior citizens on fixed pensions and people with disabilities should get free transit rides, this blame heaped on the free-ride program is a classic divide-and-conquer "red herring."

The real problems are rooted in the way the system is funded.

The city's transit system is at the mercy of budget battles fought out downstate in the state capitol of Springfield. Thus, earlier in the year, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich vetoed funding for reduced-fare subsidies totaling $32 million.

Transit funding in the Chicago area also relies partly on regressive sales taxes and real estate taxes. As consumers cut back, sales tax revenue is projected to decline. Further, the CTA is projecting a decline in revenue from real estate taxes because of the housing crisis.

But the major problem is that the CTA and the state have been in utter denial that they actually have to pay workers. The CTA projects operating expenses to reach beyond $1.2 billion in 2009--a $116 million increase over 2008--with the lion's share of the increase coming from an extremely modest cost-of-living raise (around 3 or 3.5 percent annually) and rising health care costs for CTA workers

Like other state governments, Illinois has clearly made a decision to underfund labor costs rather than raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost--but the CTA wants to make the passengers pay instead.

Some local reporters have implied that CTA workers' benefits are "overly generous." This is another "red herring." Starting pay for a part-time bus operator is less than $18 an hour. Starting pay for a full-time bus operator is even lower--although the benefits are better.

Furthermore, studies have shown that transit workers face substantial health problems from the stress of the job. They deserve substantial compensation for their sacrifice.

The state of Illinois, the city of Chicago and the CTA want a modern mass transit system on the cheap. They want people to be able to get to work--but they don't want to take the necessary step of taxing the rich in order to make this possible.

Instead, they will turn bus and train fares into yet another regressive tax on workers and the poor. As the recession grows worse, this sort of squeeze on working-class people is unacceptable.

Everybody who relies on the CTA needs to make it clear to Blagojevich, Daley and Huberman that we won't put up with it.

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