Running On Empty: CTA Seeks More Funds

Nomaan Merchant

By Nomaan MerchantThe Daily Northwestern

If state legislators don’t come through with $110 million by the end of the year, the Chicago Transit Authority says it might be forced to cut service or increase fares starting in January.

CTA President Frank Kruesi’s proposed 2007 budget is about 9 percent larger than this year’s. The CTA is counting on the state yet again to help it balance its budget.

“With more funding, the CTA and our sister agencies will be able to do more and ridership will grow,” Kruesi said in an Oct. 12 press release. “Without it, the current system cannot be maintained and will have to shrink.”

Kruesi said that the budget increased because of rising energy costs, as well as healthcare and pension payments.

The Illinois General Assembly appropriated $54.3 million in 2005 to help the CTA make ends meet for this year’s budget.

Transportation officials had threatened severe cuts, including completely eliminating the Purple Line Express and 30 bus routes, before the legislature took action.

Public transportation will continually need bailouts until structural changes to funding are made, said State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston). Hamos is the chairwoman of the House Mass Transit Committee.

“I’m not surprised they needed more money,” Hamos said. “We cannot let the transit budget do that every year.”

This year is “the year of decision” for the CTA, Hamos said. If the state elects not to provide the CTA with the funds that it requested, public transportation in Illinois could be affected far beyond route cuts or fare hikes.

Illinois will be less competitive in attracting federal funds, and public transportation companies throughout Illinois will not start new projects, Hamos said.

Other public transit bodies also are asking the state assembly for additional funding, including Pace and Metra.

Hamos said she supports looking into new methods of funding and that the state has issued bonds to pay for capital improvements in the past.

For two years, the CTA has diverted funds from its account for new construction and maintenance to balance operating expenses. Pace, which operates most suburban bus routes, is asking the state for an additional $23 million to balance next year’s budget. Pace has transferred about $90 million from its capital budget to its operating budget over the past four years.

But the CTA hopes to avoid this practice because taking money out of the capital fund impacts the upkeep of buses and trains as well as new projects.

“Any time you divert capital funds for operating purposes, there is important capital work that is postponed,” CTA spokeswoman Wanda Taylor said.

Robyn Ziegler, another CTA spokeswoman, said the CTA has not made backup plans in case lawmakers do not increase transportation funding, but cutting some routes or raising fares for what would be the third time in three years is not out of the question.

“Nothing specific has been discussed yet, because we’re hopeful that things will work out,” Ziegler said.

Purple Line riders said they weren’t surprised the CTA needed more money from the state. One passenger said the CTA doesn’t deserve extra funding.

“They seem to be making enough money,” said Evanston resident Allan Davis, who has taken the CTA for 20 years. “They keep raising fares and people ride it all day and all night.”

University of Chicago graduate student Ben Johnson, Weinberg ’02, said public transportation in northeastern Illinois is plagued with funding issues.

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” Johnson said.

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]