Doomsday plan up for vote

Stephen Blackman

State lawmakers are set to vote Thursday on a last-minute measure that would avert major CTA service cuts and employee layoffs scheduled for Sunday while giving free rides to all senior citizens statewide.

Approval of the measure would prevent officials from being forced to enact what’s been nicknamed the “Doomsday Plan,” under which 157 CTA and suburban Pace bus routes would be eliminated Jan. 20, and off-peak service will be reduced on many of the remaining routes.

Fares would rise to a maximum of $3.25 for rush hour train service from their current price of $2, and 2,400 employees will lose their jobs.

The 81 CTA bus routes provide more than 320,000 rides daily, according to CTA officials. Only about 70,000 of those rides are expected to find other bus routes or train lines, which means the CTA could potentially lose 250,000 rides a day, nearly one quarter of its current total.

“I don’t really have a choice,” said Evanston resident Tony Harris, who takes the Purple Line and a Pace bus to school at Loyola Academy in Wilmette everyday. His bus route, the 421, is one of the 76 routes slated for elimination.

“It’s way too far to walk (from the train station),” Harris said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do.”

A controversial bail-out measure, introduced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich last week when he vetoed the General Assembly’s proposed sales tax increase, passed a state House of Representatives transit panel Wednesday in a 16-5 vote.

The original bill would have increased sales taxes in Cook County and the collar counties, and ordered the Chicago City Council to approve a 40 percent increase in the real estate transfer tax – from $7.50 to $10.50 per $1,000 of the sale price. Blagojevich amended the bill to provide free rides for senior citizens to defray the impact of the tax hike.

Critics, including Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, have questioned Blagojevich’s proposal, calling it a political measure to save face after the governor promised not to raise sales or income taxes during his campaign.

The measure would provide more than $494 million in funding to get the CTA through its current budget crisis and $50 million for transit agencies in other parts of Illinois. The proposed spending has angered some lawmakers from other parts of the state, who feel their constituents should not have to subsidize Chicago’s mass transit.

Senior citizen Nate Clark said he rides CTA buses every day but thinks the governor’s plan to provide seniors with free rides is a waste.

“Senior citizens get a pretty good break right now,” said Clark, a Rogers Park resident. “It’s more of a political ploy.”

It is estimated that the free rides will cost the agency between $20 and $30 million a year, with 1.3 million Illinois residents 65-and-over able to ride for free.

“If you’re going to do something like this, it has to be fair,” said Howard Levy, a Skokie resident who commutes to work in Chicago every day using the Metra and a bus.

While he supports the governor’s bid to restore funding for mass transit, Levy said the free rides for seniors are a bad idea.

“There are a lot of seniors who can afford to pay,” he said. “We should give free rides to the people who can’t afford it and really could use them.”

The threatened service cuts are unlikely to go into effect, said Jonathan Perman, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve been around here a long time, and these ‘Doomsdays’ come up time and time again, and they don’t happen,” he said.

Evanston’s economy is tied to that of the greater Chicago metropolitan area, Perman said. The city provides jobs for Evanston residents and workers for Evanston businesses.

“Howard Street is just a political boundary, not an economic boundary,” he said.

The current crisis belies a long-term capital funding shortage to the tune of $10 billion over the next five years, according to the Transit Rider’s Alliance, an advocacy group.

“I lived through the worst of New York’s transportation woes,” Levy said, “and they were never as bad as this. It’s a disgrace.”

Reach Stephen Blackman at [email protected]

The CTA Crisis

-Sept. 14, 2007: Cuts postponed until Nov. 4 when CTA president Ron Huberman accepted a $24 million advance from Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

-Nov. 4, 2007: Cuts postponed again to 2008 after Blagojevich secures a $27 million grant.

-Nov. 7, 2007: To compensate for a $158 million shortfall, the CTA schedules its bus cuts, layoffs and fare increases for Jan. 20.

-Jan. 10, 2008: The General Assembly passes the CTA funding bill which relies on a 0.25 percent increase in sales tax to make up for the deficit.

-Jan. 15, 2008: The measure passes an Illinois House of Representatives transit panel Wednesday in a 16-5 vote.

-Today: The General Assembly is expected to vote on the measure with Blagojevich’s amendment as early as today.

-Jan. 20, 2008: If the proposal for government funding is not approved, the CTA’s service cuts and fare hikes will take effect.