Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Doomsday Is Near

Like most riders of the Chicago Transit Authority, I have a love-hate relationship with the CTA. On the one hand, I love not having to drive and most who know me would agree that our highways and side streets are safer without me behind the wheel. On the other hand, I hate the shoddy way CTA conducts business—constant delays, “customer service assistants” who appear to be trained in maximum surliness, filthy conditions on the majority of rail cars, elevated platforms with no protection from the elements…stop me before this turns into a novel. For most riders, there’s no convenient alternative (a la Metra); so while we don’t exactly shut up—complaining loudly and often to our fellow victims, er, passengers—we are largely forced to put up.

So it’s with mixed emotions that I’ve been following the CTA’s recent funding woes. In short, unless the Illinois legislature acts within the next few days, CTA is guaranteed a $100 million shortfall and will implement its long-threatened “doomsday” scenario, which includes layoffs, service cuts and fare hikes.

Normally I don’t like to reward people who can’t manage their money. This is the second time in nearly as many years that CTA has faced such a ginormous budget gap. How does this sort of miscalculation occur? It’s as if I were to walk into the swankest restaurant in town, order the most expensive items on the menu and when the check comes, tell the waitress, “Oops, I’ve only got 5 bucks in my pocket.” And then expect the owner to make up the difference.

This might explain why you haven’t seen a groundswell of CTA riders marching on Springfield to demand action. It doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring chant: CTA sucks but give it money anyway.

Much as I’d like to send CTA a message to get their house in order, the doomsday approach isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Partly because it will hit me and others—many of whom can ill afford the fare increase—in our wallets. But mostly because in light of skyrocketing gas prices and global warming, it strikes me as extremely shortsighted of our elected officials to continue underfunding mass transit, which has the potential to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere. I would argue that now is the very time when we should be looking for ways to expand mass transit options, not scale them back.

This brings me to the following telephone survey, which I participated in last night. Normally I don’t answer the phone but we were expecting a call from the plumber regarding our ceiling, which started leaking last Friday. It wasn’t the plumber. Instead it was a digital voice.

Question #1: Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to fund mass transit?

Suspected Hidden Agenda: I’m guessing this survey was devised by opponents of a plan making its way through the Statehouse, which would enact a slight increase in the sales tax to fund CTA—an increase that would only affect people in the area served by the regional transit authority. “Do you want to pay higher taxes” is kind of like asking someone if they want to be stabbed to death. Not the sort of query that’s going to get a lot of takers.

My Answer: Yes.

Convoluted Explanation: I don’t enjoy paying taxes but I’m also not violently opposed to the concept. Especially if I can see a tangible benefit. Take the federal income tax: A lot of people would like to see it dramatically lowered or eliminated altogether (along with the government that administers the collected funds). I suspect that’s because they look at their paycheck, see the difference between “gross” and “net” and think, “This is bullshit.” Because a lot of that money goes toward things like gazillion-dollar stealth bombers, which none of us ever gets to see or play with. But roads, bridges, schools, food safety inspectors, and the like—well I don’t mind paying for stuff like that. CTA falls in this category as just the sort of thing that taxes should go toward—something that serves the common good.

Which leads to…

Question #2: Do you think mass transit should be funded solely by the fares of the people who use it? Press One. Or do you think mass transit benefits the entire community and funding should be spread across the entire tax base? Press Two.

My Answer: I pressed two.

Convoluted Explanation: I realize this looks like I’m acting in my own self-interest, which, I might add, is what people typically do. And I can see how someone who drives to work every day or has never stepped foot on a bus or train would look at the CTA crisis and say, “Not my problem. I’m paying $3.50 a gallon for gas. Screw them.”

This is what I have to say to those folks: What if everyone who owns a car but chooses, for various reasons, to ride CTA instead, drove their car to work. Imagine how much worse your commute would be with these people on the road, clogging the expressways, beating you to your parking space. Imagine the added wear and tear on the roadways and all the construction projects to repair the damage. Imagine the extra pollution spewing into the air. Still not your problem?

Or picture this scenario: What if everyone who doesn’t own a car, and rides CTA because it’s their only mode of transportation, doesn’t show up to work. Imagine there’s no one to take your order at lunch or perform in the play you bought tickets for months ago. Imagine there’s no one to babysit your kids or admit you into the Emergency Room.

Still not your problem?


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