CTA releases its proposed 2023 budget during a time of rider discontent

The Belmont 'L' station in Lakeview. Photo: John Greenfield
The Belmont 'L' station in Lakeview. Photo: John Greenfield

CTA rider confidence is currently at a low point. Due to COVID-related staffing shortages, bus and train runs are often skipped, leading to longer, less predictable wait times. For example, the advocacy group Commuters Take Action analyzed transit data and found that on Wednesday only 65 percent of scheduled Blue Line runs actually materialized.

Adding insult to injury, predicted arrival times on on the CTA Train Tracker website, platform displays, and various apps are based on a mix of real-time data and scheduled trips, and most riders don’t know how to tell the difference. (Tip: A Wi-Fi wave icon next to an arrival time means it’s real, while a clock icon means it’s scheduled, and therefore merely hypothetical, as you can see in the photo below.) So they often have the profoundly frustrating experience of waiting for a run that has appeared on a screen, only to have it vanish from the screen before the predicted arrival time.

On top of that, violent crime has spiked on the ‘L’ system in recent years. And then there are annoyances like smoking and littering, which also seem to have gotten worse during the pandemic.

None of this is helping the system recover from COVID ridership losses. While the system recently reached a new pandemic-era high of an average of about 900,000 trips per weekday, that’s only 64 percent of the pre-COVID norm of 1.4 million rides per weekday.

Amidst all these headwinds, the CTA today released its proposal for a $1.8 billion operating budget for 2023. The budget is up 4.6 percent from $1.75 billion in 2021, and is significantly higher than the roughly $1.5 billion allocated in 2019, thanks to an infusion of cash from federal COVID relief, which is helping to make up for decreased fare box revenue.

What’s in the budget?

The budget doesn’t propose raising fares, which would surely face a major backlash due to aforementioned problems on the system. It does call for more investment in hiring bus and train operators, as well as more funding for security.  

“Our proposed 2023 operating budget is both fiscally prudent and responsible, with a focus on further improving the essential transit services that Chicagoans rely on as the region continues to evolve from the pandemic,” said CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. in a statement. “In the year ahead, we are committed to maximizing every dollar of our budget to both modernize our system and continue work on the strategic initiatives outlined in support of the guiding pillars of ‘Meeting the Moment’ Action Plan, which addresses the most pressing challenges facing our customers and employees.” 

Funny, “prudent and responsible” aren’t words that come to mind when I think of Carter nowadays. He’s currently in the doghouse with transit advocates and alderpersons after inexplicably failing to show up for for his own September 14 Chicago City Council hearing on poor transit service.

The CTA stonewalled Streetsblog’s Freedom of Information Act request seeking inside information on why Carter made this seemingly foolish choice, by using a loophole in the FOIA law to redact all relevant information in the documents the agency provided to us. While the agency’s budget only has to be approved by its board, not the Council, his ghosting of the alders has already come back to haunt him. Council members recently balked at the CTA’s request for the creation of a Transit Tax Increment Financing district to help pay for the $3.6 billion south Red Line extension in the wake of the snub.

Carter’s bizarre behavior aside, the CTA budget projects that ridership will continue to rebound next year, rising by about 9 percent over 2022 ridership. “To ensure that CTA meets that demand, the agency continues an aggressive, comprehensive recruitment program to address the biggest issue impacting service: attracting and retaining workers, especially frontline employees like bus and rail operators,” the agency said in a news release.

The CTA hosted eight job fairs in 2022 and hired dozens of new workers, but says it’s still a thousand workers short, including about 100 train operators and 650 bus drivers. The new budget would bump up labor expenditures from $1.24 billion in 2022 to $1.28 billion next year. The agency projects that it would continue to spend more on labor in 2024 ($1.32 billion) and 2025 (1.37 billion), according to a Sun-times report.

The CTA is also increasing the funding for security from $26 million this year to $41 million in 2023, the Chicago Tribune reported. This includes cash for unarmed security guards, dog patrols, and a program to hire off-duty Chicago cops to work in the transit system.

The agency also promised that it is tweaking the algorithms on the Transit Trackers to make them more accurate, and cited recent upgrades to the Bus Tracker website.

According to the CTA, American Rescue Plan funding will help bridge an estimated $390 million budget gap in 2023. It’s unclear what the transit agency will do when the federal stimulus cash dries up in the future, which the CTA expects to happen in 2025, a potential fiscal cliff.

The CTA also released its $3.4 billion 2023-2027 Capital Improvement Program, which is separate from the operating budget. This includes money for the Red Line extension, which people have been asking for since the Nixon era. 

The capital plan also includes

  • All Stations Accessibility Program, to make to make all ‘L’ stations ADA accessible
  • Expansion of the electric bus fleet, with the goal of electrifying the entire fleet by 2040
  • The Refresh & Renew program, which covers short-term improvements to train stations
  • Better Streets for Buses, a plan for (modest) bus corridor improvements across the city

Questions the news release release raises include just how well are the station accessibility upgrades are going. And why is there no discussion of future route and line planning, aside from the Red Line extension?

More information on the proposed 2023 budget is available here. 

A North Avenue bus at Ashland Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield
A North Avenue bus at Ashland Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

How to provide input on the budget

A virtual public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. November 10, 2022. The CTA says that “due to health concerns” there will be no in-person hearings, although this is probably more an issue of cost and convenience for the agency.

A link to view the hearing will be available at transitchicago.com/finance. Residents who want to speak at the virtual public hearing can submit their request prior to the hearing. Options for providing comment at the virtual hearing or for submission to the Chicago Transit Board on the proposed 2023-2027 Capital Program of Projects, 2022 Operating Budget and Program, and the Financial Plan for 2023 and 2024 are detailed below. (The following is the agency’s language.) 

WRITTEN STATEMENTS: Written statements will be taken into consideration prior to the adoption of the proposed 2023-2027 Capital Program of Projects, 2023 Operating Budget and Program, and Financial Plan for 2023 and 2024. Written comments for the Chicago Transit Board’s review and consideration must be submitted by 5 p.m. Tuesday, November 15, 2022. Written comments may be submitted in any of the following ways:  

  • Via US Mail, CTA Board Office, 567 W. Lake Street, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL 60661 
  • Via drop off at CTA Headquarters, 567 W. Lake Street, 1st floor mailroom 
  • Via fax at 312-681-5035 
  • Via email at GLonghini1@transitchicago.com  

ORAL STATEMENTS: Members of the public who wish to speak at the virtual public hearing are encouraged to register prior to the hearing, by completing and submitting a Request to Speak form online at transitchicago.com/finance. Individuals registered online by Wednesday, November 9, 2022, the day before the hearing, will be called by the CTA, at the telephone number provided, during the November 10, 2022 hearing, to be connected to the virtual public hearing proceedings.

DIAL IN AT THE TIME OF THE HEARING: Members of the public may also dial-in, while the hearing is in progress, to request to speak, by calling 312-681-3091. Individuals who pre-register to speak will be taken up first at the virtual public hearing. Individuals who call while the hearing is in progress will then speak in the order that they call in. At the virtual public hearing the CTA will afford an opportunity for interested persons or agencies to be heard with respect to social, economic, environmental and other related aspects of the proposed 2023-2027 Capital Program of Projects, 2023 Operating Budget and Program, Proposed Fare Reductions and the Financial Plan for 2023 and 2024.

At the virtual public hearing, an American Sign Language interpreter and a Spanish interpreter will be provided. Individuals with disabilities who require other accommodations to review the budget or to provide feedback should contact Gregory Longhini, Board Secretary, at GLonghini1@transitchicago.com, 312-681-5022 or Relay.