March 06, 2023
Howard A. Learner
Crain’s Op-Ed: Chicago’s New Mayor Needs to Tackle the Public Transit Crisis
Facing the public transit crisis is essential to the future of our city.
This Opinion Editorial was originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on Monday, March 6, 2023.
The title was updated on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, to recognize the new Mayor-Elect Brandon Johnson.
The next mayor, Brandon Johnson or Paul Vallas, will face multiple fundamental challenges, including the stressed city budget and pension overhang, public safety, education, viable public transit and a downtown economy wracked by COVID office shutdowns and changing workplace dynamics.
Action on the Chicago Transit Authority transit crisis is vital for the city’s economy and environment. The systemic public transit challenges are well understood, have built up over time, were exacerbated by the pandemic and patched over by short-term infusions of federal funds during the COVID emergency. Global cities require public transit that works well. No good public transit means more pollution and no “green city.”
Fixing public transit requires the next mayor’s personal attention and significant political capital. Failure is not an option. Here’s the distressing overall picture:
1. CTA’s and Metra’s business models are no longer viable. Their revenue models are based on workers commuting five days each week, twice per day. That’s not today’s reality or, probably, tomorrow’s. Commuter ridership changing from 10 trips to five to six trips per week hammers farebox revenues.
2. Federal COVID emergency funds are ending. CTA’s finances have been propped up by huge infusions of federal funds supporting operations during the pandemic and economic downturn. Congress has not otherwise provided operating support for urban transit since 1998. House Republicans won’t provide that funding now.
3. Staffing and reliability problems. CTA has struggled to hire bus and train operators. This personnel shortage results in less frequent and unreliable service. Commuters are understandably frustrated.
4. Safety concerns. Riders are fed up by public safety issues, smoking on railcars and other unpleasant conditions. There will be fewer riders until commuter confidence is restored.
5. Chicago’s downtown center has changed. CTA’s hub-and-spoke rail system is designed to bring riders from Chicago neighborhoods and nearby suburbs into the downtown Loop area. State and Madison, however, is no longer Chicago’s downtown center for transit. The rapid growth of businesses on the city’s Near West Side has made Ogilvie Station, Union Station and the Old Post Office into the new central spine of downtown Chicago.
So here’s what should Chicago’s next mayor do, recognizing that the solutions are not easy:
1. Show that you care. This is the easiest step. Get on some CTA trains with CTA’s senior management, talk with riders, be visible and send the message that you’re stepping up. You’ll have unbelievable demands on your time, but you can do this.
2. Demand better schedules and reliability solutions that riders can depend on. If the schedules are accurate and people know when the buses and trains will depart and arrive on time, then most riders can adjust. Look again at Bus Rapid Transit solutions, which could improve reliability and frequency at low cost.
3. Safety and no smoking. You’ll need more visible CTA security on trains to provide more assurances of safety to transit riders. Everyone who rides CTA has safety stories. We need to restore civility to CTA trains, buses and stations, while providing support for those needing housing and mental health services. Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland have tackled this challenge with unarmed “transit ambassadors.” Smoking? Enforce the rules, and escort smokers off the train at the next station.
4. Money. The CTA’s finances simply don’t work and it’s heading off a financial cliff when federal COVID emergency funds run out. That means raising the sales tax, gas tax, tolls on existing tollways, or a combination of the three, or state assistance. Magical thinking won’t fix this. Declining CTA and Metra service will force more commuters to drive, thus adding more traffic congestion in the neighborhoods and more pollution, or fewer people will go downtown, thereby further undermining the downtown economy.
5. Governance. The regional transportation governance system is unwieldly and broken. Four separate boards for the Regional Transportation Authority, CTA, Metra and Pace is costly and cumbersome, especially when flexibility is necessary. For example, we need to make it easy for riders to transfer from Metra to CTA in the city and vice versa. Reconfiguring the agencies won’t be easy, but the political compromises of 1983 are not necessarily the right solutions for 2023. Making the whole system and its parts work better will likely require state legislative action. Civic and business leadership support is emerging. Go to Springfield soon and make the case with the three Chicago-area residents who run the show: the governor, Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Chris Welch.
Messrs. Johnson and Vallas, whichever of you is the next mayor will have an overwhelming platter of challenges and crises that require your attention. Facing the public transit crisis is essential to the future of our city. You’ll need to go all in.
Howard A. Learner,
President and Executive Director
Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.MORE FROM Howard A. Learner