We fix the CTA!
With the agency embroiled in its latest doomsday scenario of fare hikes and service cuts, we look for mass-transit ideas outside the city limits.
London Funnel fees back into the system
Since 2003, London has charged drivers a “congestion fee” to enter Central London and imposed a fine for nonpayment. The charge has cut down on traffic snarls, increased use of mass transit and, above all, helped fund the city’s bus system. In the 2006–07 budget year alone, congestion fee and fine revenues of more than £101 million ($164 million) were put toward bus-operation enhancements (e.g., garages, stops, shelters). Though downtown Chicago is nowhere near as choked with vehicular traffic as Central London, the city’s expressways could use the relief.
New York City Fight for your rights
Everyone grouses when the CTA threatens service cuts and fare increases, but to whom do we turn to take a stand? Our lone grassroots transit org, the ragtag Citizens Taking Action, has never been strong enough to effect significant change, and the transportation think tanks (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, we’re looking at you) couldn’t stage a protest if their state funding depended on it. Alas, Chicago has no active, powerful watchdog that holds transit officials accountable to riders. New York City, on the other hand, has two: the Straphangers Campaign, a 30-year-old research-based advocacy group, and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which holds a nonvoting seat on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board. After a 2003 fare hike, the Straphangers won a suit against the MTA, alleging it inflated its deficit figures. Though the MTA later triumphed in a state Supreme Court appeal, the agency vowed to release its budget information earlier and post more info on its website, and it appointed a group of finance experts to better explain its budget to the public.
Washington, D.C. Spread the cost
In lieu of CTA-style flat fares, the Washington Metro takes into account the time of day and distance traveled. The cost ranges from $1.65 (for a short distance on off hours) to $4.50 (for a long ride during peak periods). These surcharges helped the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority raise funds and alleviate congestion on the Metro, the second-busiest rapid-transit system in the U.S., after New York City.
Portland Don’t bank on the fare box
The CTA is an exceptionally fare-dependant system. Like every transit operator under the Regional Transportation Authority’s umbrella (including Metra and Pace), it’s mandated by state law to collect a whopping 50 percent of its revenue through fares. If the CTA doesn’t meet that quota, its only options are hiking fares and slashing service. Such dire straits are foreign to Portland’s TriMet. Just 20 percent of its revenue has to come from fares, while 55 percent is derived from a payroll tax paid by business owners and self-employers within the TriMet area that benefit from rapid transit.
Hong Kong Reap profits from land
One of the only profitable transit systems in the world, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR)—which went private in 2000—has kept its books in the black by becoming one of the city’s largest owners and developers of real estate. It sounds strange to Chicago ears, but the MTR develops properties above existing and newly built rail stations into residential and commercial spaces. For example, Maritime Square, a four-story shopping center with a movie theater, an off-track betting outlet and a Starbucks, also houses an MTR rail station.