CTA board gets earful from riders

  • By Amy Lee
  • Transit reporter
  • October 30, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

About 100 transit riders and advocates for the low-income and disabled turned out last night during the Chicago Transit Authority’s public hearing on its proposed 2009 budget.

Many expressed disdain for the CTA's proposed fare hikes.

“Working people cannot pay this much for transit,” said Mario Garcia, 21, a Pilsen resident who told the board he rides his bike rather than wait for buses that show up only sporadically on his route.

The $1.3 billion budget calls for an increase of at least 25 cents to ride the city’s buses and trains in 2009, increases monthly passes to $90 and eliminates a 10 percent reduction for Chicago Card users.
“A lot of people live on fixed incomes," Garcia said. "It’s too much. Leave the fare alone.”

CTA Board President Ron Huberman says the fare hikes are required to close a projected $42.2 million budget shortfall. The agency blames its budget woes on spikes in fuel, power and labor costs, and a program that allows seniors, the disabled and members of the military to ride for free.

The CTA also attributes its money woes to lower-than-expected real estate transfer taxes and sales tax revenue.

Agency officials say the budget does not divert cash needed for physical improvements to the system to pay for operations. The agency does not plan to cut any service routes or change the free-ride program for seniors, members of the military or the disabled.

“We’re doing everything we can to tighten the belt, but we are not cutting bus routers, we are not cutting train routes,” Huberman said. “We will operate the same service [next year] with fewer employees.”

A majority of speakers last night criticized the seven-member board for hiking fares when residents are grappling with a poor job market and increased prices for gas and food. They say the hikes will hurt low-income workers the most.

“Every nickel and dime makes it harder to buy eggs, meat and oatmeal,” said Alfred Rogers of the Southwest Latino Organization.

The agency’s funding problems hit near-fever pitch in late 2007, when the CTA decorated its buses and train with “doomsday” messages of impending service cuts if the state did not increase funding for the city’s transit system.

The Illinois General Assembly raised regional sales taxes and increased the real estate transfer tax by 40 percent to avoid massive CTA fare hikes.

Rider Robert Stone drilled the board on the agency’s "doomsday" campaign of  late 2007,  questioning why the CTA still finds itself short of cash.

“It hasn’t been a year since doomsday and now we have a fare increase. Why? Incompetency,” Stone said.

However, a few audience members praised the board for hiking fares instead of cutting service. Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation government research organization, praised the CTA for cutting expenses internally before asking riders to shoulder more of the costs.

The proposed budget calls for the CTA to operate with 531 less employees through a series of layoffs, elimination of vacancies and fewer staffing needs associated with construction projects.

“We believe it is a reasonable and responsible plan because it maintains service. Although fare increases are difficult, they are necessary,” Msall said.

“It’s still a bargain compared to parking and the costs associated with driving.”

But Charles Paidock, secretary of the transit advocacy group Citizens Taking Action, criticized the Civic Federation for being out of touch with struggling workers.

“Poor people do not think a transit fare is cheap,” Paidock said.

The CTA board will vote on Huberman’s proposed 2009 budget during a 10 a.m. meeting on Nov. 12 at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake.

Amy Lee is a Chicago-based journalist. She covers transit issues for the Daily News.