Before stimulus, advocates pushed for transparency on cuts. That’s still important.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

Transit advocates breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when Congress passed a new stimulus bill earmarking an estimated $486 million for Chicagoland public transportation, saving the CTA, Metra, and Pace from what CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. previously called a “beyond-doomsday” scenario. However, the total national bailout for public transportation only totaled $14 billion, less than half of the $32 billion agencies and advocates were pushing for. Representatives of these organizations were quick to note that we’re not out of the woods yet, and more federal funding will be needed to prevent future service cuts, fare hikes, and/or layoffs.

With the incoming transit-friendly Biden-Harris administration, and a possible Democratic takeover of the Senate pending the Georgia runoffs, there’s reason to be optimistic that more aid for public transportation will materialize next year. But what if the calvary don’t show up in the form of additional funding, and service cuts become inevitable — how do we make sure they don’t disproportionately impact the most vulnerable Chicagoland residents?

The Active Transportation Alliance organized a coalition of advocacy organizations, civic groups, and think tanks to prepare for that scenario. They called on the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees funding for local transit, plus boards of the three systems, to be transparent about any decisions to reduce bus or train service in the event of funding shortfall. Here’s a list of the other entities involved.

  • Center for Neighborhood Technology
  • Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development
  • Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce
  • Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago
  • Elevated Chicago
  • Environmental Law & Policy Center
  • Illinois Environmental Council
  • Metropolitan Planning Council
  • Respiratory Health Association
  • Shared Use Mobility Center

The coalition sent a letter (read the full document here) to the RTA, the CTA, Metra, and Pace during their budget hearings last month, back when it wasn’t clear that even the this initial $486 million would come through. “We are gravely concerned that your proposed budgets ignore the looming transit financial crisis,” it stated. “While we continue to work with you in support of federal funding, it is irresponsible to assume that these funds will become available. Every day brings different news about potential COVID relief legislation, suggesting that the only thing that is certain is that there is no certainty concerning federal aid.”

The coalition argued that the RTA and the transit system boards should have presented budgets that detailed what they would do to reduce costs if the funding didn’t come through. The letter stated that such an approach would be “honest and prudent” and help build trust among stakeholders.

It also asserted that by identifying exactly which service would need to be cut, the agencies would help build support for federal funding to avoid those cuts. And it stated that if Congress wound up allocating less that what is required by the systems, which is what ultimately happened, laying out options for cuts in advance would help stakeholders provide feedback on which service is most important to them and should be spared the axe.

The coalition suggested that, instead of taking a relatively rose-colored approach, the RTA and transit boards should have followed the examples set by regional transportation authorities in the San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston metropolitan areas, which laid out concrete plans for cuts and/or layoffs to help close their budget deficits in the event of a funding shortfall.

“To be clear, our coalition does not endorse cutting transit service, which is essential to the health of our region and critical to many of its residents,” the letter stated. “We do, however, call for an open and honest conversation about what cuts will prove necessary should federal relief not materialize.”

The coalition argued that this discussion should focus on the transit needs of people most heavily impacted by the pandemic, noting that a disproportionate number of local transit riders and workers are African-American and Latino, especially during the current crisis. “They’re working essential jobs and relying on transit to get to food and healthcare. Widespread transit cuts and layoffs would leave many of these Chicagoans stranded when they’re most vulnerable.”

Happily, the possibility of transit cuts is less of an an immediate threat than when the letter was penned. But it’s still important for local transit agencies to be transparent about what would service be reduced in the event that the federal funding runs out.

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