Earlier this week the Chicago Transit Authority announced its proposed budget for 2017. Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the fact that the budget “freezes” the $2.00 and $2.25 cash fare on buses and trains, respectively.
The CTA holding the line on fares – for the eighth consecutive year – creates positive publicity for Emanuel, even while he raises many other fees in Chicago. Agency spokesman Jeffrey Tolman said “we will continue to look for ways to keep CTA as affordable as possible while maintaining the high level of service.”
However, it would be wiser for the CTA to raise fares incrementally each year to accommodate perennially rising costs, and give itself more breathing room to add or expand bus route changes without having to find an equivalent cost to cut elsewhere in the budget.
The agency’s repeated decisions not to change the “base” fare could lead to a future doomsday scenario. Chicago is currently experiencing a building boom, but if development slows the CTA will have less funding from its share of local sales taxes, and from the real estate transfer tax (a tax on property sold). At that point it will need to cut staff and service, or raise fares steeply, to a price that would likely be higher than if the fares were raised periodically.
Even the language in the CTA’s budget document bemoans the scarcity of transit funding, stating, “CTA continues to face funding challenges to meet our ambitious modernization goals.”
Although the total number of rail and bus rides in 2015 was 516 million, up 1.6 percent from 514.5 million in 2014, the current budget projects that total annual ridership will have dropped by nearly 17 million rides from 2015 to 2016. A majority of this drop will be seen on bus routes. The CTA also predicts a total drop of 3.4 million rides, all of them on bus routes, between 2016 and 2017. The agency is projecting an increase in rail ridership.
Tolman said the drop in bus ridership is caused by “low gas prices, traffic congestion, [and] shifting population trends.” He added, “CTA ridership, especially bus, has been heavily influenced by gas prices over the last 20 years. Inflation adjusted gas prices are near 100-year lows and are forecasted to remain low in 2017.” Figures from the Federal Highway Administration show that people drove more last year than the previous peak in 2014, which followed a decline during the recession.