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CTA online budget hearing was a short, glitchy affair amid uncertain funding future

Photo: John Greenfield

Last week's public hearing on the proposed 2021 CTA budget was a sign of the COVID-19 times. It was held entirely online, with sparse attendance, and was plagued by technical glitches.

In my experience, CTA budget hearings tend to be better attended than Metra’s and Pace’s -- even in quieter years, it’s not unusual to get a dozen or so speakers. But this year only three people ended up speaking, with one person who signed up deciding not to speak after all, and another unable to overcome the technical issues.

As Streetsblog previously reported, CTA isn't proposing fare hikes or service cuts next year -- though that’s contingent on at least $375 million in additional federal funding, on top of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding the agency got this spring. The budget document didn’t go into details about what kind of cuts the CTA might make if the stimulus doesn’t materialize. And while some of the speakers looked forward to post-pandemic life, calling for more transit service and larger buses, others were concerned about Congress dragging its feet on the stimulus and expressed concerns about how any cuts might affect riders with disabilities, who tend to be more transit-dependent.

Proposed 2021 Budget

Like other transit agencies, the CTA is facing funding shortages on two fronts: the sharp drop in farebox revenue (by 60 percent as of November) and lower-than-expected sales tax revenue. According to the budget document, the CTA is projected to lose $554 million by the end of this year. CARES Act funding helped plug that hole, allowing the system to maintain the current levels of service for the rest of 2020 “and into the start of 2021.”

While the proposed budget cuts spending in several areas, overall the CTA’s expenses would still go up compared to both what was originally budgeted for this year ($1,570,466,000) and the amended figures ($1,592,123,000), totaling $1,645,065,000. Most that has to do with increased labor costs, more spending on cleaning and personal protection equipment, expenses related to “injuries and damages,” as well as more spending on contractual services and debt service.

By contrast, the revenues are projected to be nearly half of what the CTA expected to collect this year before the pandemic, $338,317,000 versus the $695,657,000 projected in the 2020 budget. The companies that normally advertise on the ‘L’ and buses have cut back their ad purchases, and that’s not expected to recover fully next year. Ditto the money the CTA gets from production companies using its stations and vehicles for filming, as well as revenue from CTA-owned parking lots, and even vending machines at the ‘L’ stations.

Sales tax proceeds and various federal and state allocations are expected to decline as well, from $874,809,000 to $671,269,000. While brick-and-mortar sales tax revenue is expected to decline, the CTA expects to partially make up for it thanks to tax on online sales.

The CTA estimates that it would be able to use $263,548,000 in CARES funding next year, and it expects to save $371,931,000 though “budget balancing actions.” That includes keeping positions vacant and locking in energy costs at “historically low market prices."

Longer term, the CTA does expect to see sales tax revenue improve in 2022 and 2023 as the economy recovers from COVID-19, but it doesn’t expect ridership to return to anywhere near normal until 2022.

“The economic and societal impact of this pandemic has changed the way we live and work and will be felt for years to come,” the budget states. ”The fundamental shifts in ridership such as businesses allowing a significant portion of their workforce to telework, a shift away from transit trips into the business district, staggered work hours, and social distancing awareness are all trends that are expected to continue into the foreseeable future.”

As Streetsblog previously reported, the budget includes a five-year, $3.4 billion Capital Improvement Program, which is largely funded through state and federal sources, most notably, the Rebuild Illinois state capital program. Major projects include the Cottage Grove Green Line ‘L’ station reconstruction; making the Austin/Lake Green, California/Milwaukee Blue, and Montrose Blue ‘L’ stations wheelchair-accessible; the overhaul of 500-series ‘L’ train cars (the ones with mostly aisle-facing seats). Also included are the purchase of 400 new 7000-series ‘L’ train cars to replace older cars mostly used on the Brown and Blue lines, and $342 million for planning, engineering and property acquisition for the long-discussed Red Line extension. The CTA still doesn't have money to actually build the $2.3 billion project yet, but the prospects of securing federal funding became a little brighter after Joe Biden, a rail enthusiast, won the presidency.

Public comments

Only four people actually ended up speaking. The meeting was plagued with technical difficulties, to the point that the board ended up recessing about two-thirds of the way through the meeting so that an attempt could be made to sort them out. According to Greg Longhini, CTA board secretary, even after all of that one person couldn’t get on at all, and another declined to speak when finally reached.

Long-time Lincoln Park community activist Allan Mellis recommended that the CTA distribute free face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19. While he applauded the agency for its commitment to make all stations ADA-compliant, he argued that it hasn’t done enough to actually make it happen. “While the All Stations Accessibility Plan is a great start, it means nothing, and I'll repeat that – nothing, without adequate funding,” he said. “Funding should not only be a priority, but any significant station improvements should require full ADA accessibility.”

Mellis also urged the CTA to make sure Lincoln Yards development is adequately served by public transportation, suggesting restoring  the #41 bus, which served Clybourn Avenue until 1997, and working with Sterling Bay to set up a shuttle that would connect Lincoln Yards with the Armitage and Fullerton ‘L’ stations. He urged the CTA to support equitable transit-orientated development. And,  he has done since 2012, Mellis urged the CTA to fully restore the #11 Lincoln bus, which was piloted a few years ago with limited service hours but cancelled again due to low ridership.

Charles Paidock from the grassroots transit advocacy group Citizens Taking Action said he appreciated the CTA maintaining the regular service levels during the pandemic, and that he’s been lobbying U.S. Congress to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which includes more stimulus funding for public transit. While the act passed the House of Representatives this summer, it stalled in the Senate.

Charles Miner, of Morgan Park, said that he and his family depend heavily on transit, and that he was concerned that the budget didn’t include any “hazard pay” for bus drivers amid the pandemic. He also wanted the CTA to put police officers on the buses, saying that he was concerned about the safety of his 70-year-old mother. And Miner urged the CTA to buy more articulated buses. “Crowding was a problem before the pandemic,” he said. “We need to do some to alleviate the crowding problem, on some of the routes that can handle artics.”

Garland Armstrong, a former member of Pace’s Chicago ADA Advisory committee and a regular presence at Chicago area transit meetings, said he was particularly concerned about how any transit cuts would affect riders with disabilities like him. “The CTA has to make sure there are no fare increases for our disability friends who take CTA more often, because they really depend on that transportation,” he said. “It is their lifeline.”

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