CTA’s doom and gloom

12 September 2007

The Chicago Transit Authority is up to its old tricks, and on Sunday it will cancel umpteen bus routes if it doesn’t receive the state funding it wants. The death spiral continues, and this latest development is a serious nose-dive. But some of the CTA’s rhetoric begs closer scrutiny…

Percentage of operating budget
that comes from public sources
Chicago 48
Philadelphia 61
Boston 66
Atlanta 68
San Francisco 73
Los Angeles 74
Source: CTA 2006 Budget, 2005 National Transit Database

This chart now appears in every train car and bus on the system, along with a plea to “please write your representative.” But note the fine print on that chart. The numbers for the CTA were taken from the 2006 budget, while all the other entries are from the respective cities’ 2005 budgets. The actual value for the CTA in 2005 is more like 59 percent. Still at the low end, but no longer dramatically so.

Meanwhile, as an example of how the other numbers might be fudged, the value for San Francisco is overstated—it’s actually the figure for the MUNI alone, and does not include the BART, which is significantly lower. The MUNI gets a lot of local funding (though still not nearly as much as the CTA does in municipal funds) in part because of the cable car system, which is hugely expensive relative to the passenger miles travelled and which is an intentional loss leader due to its tourism value. Anyway, the CTA alone spends more money in a year than do the MUNI and BART combined.

It would be more accurate to compare the CTA to a similar system in terms of the population in the service area, and Philadelphia’s SEPTA comes close (3.3 million potential passengers, versus 3.7 million for CTA). In this situation, CTA comes out looking not so bad—the operating cost per service area capita is almost identical—while the operating cost per passenger mile is better: 53 cents per mile for CTA, 61 cents per mile for SEPTA.

Yet this omits one major factor: deferred maintenance. None of the many figures in the National Transit Database report mention how much was spent on maintaining the system, nor compare that against the total capital value of the system itself. And if this report from the NTSB is any indication, upkeep—and management of same—has been sorely lacking for a very long time. Not spending money to fix a system that is rapidly declining into decrepitude is a fine way to keep operating costs down, at least in the short term.

After all, deferring maintenance on the rusted-out rail clips and plates in the Blue Line subway was essentially cost-free—until a derailment in July 2006 caused over a million dollars in equipment, track, and signal damage.

(Follow-up for May 2008… The derailment continues to escalate costs: the first of more than 100 resulting lawsuits has been settled out of court, to the tune of $1.25 million.)

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