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Editorial: CTA has a good plan; no need to oversell it

CTA President Forrest Claypool (left) CTA Chairman Terry Petersmeeting with Sun-Times Editorial board November 21 2012. l John H. White

CTA President Forrest Claypool (left) and CTA Chairman Terry Peterson, meeting with Sun-Times Editorial board, November 21, 2012. l John H. White ~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 24, 2012 7:15AM



Here’s what the CTA didn’t need to do.

It didn’t need to call its proposed fare hikes “modest reductions in discounts.”

It didn’t need to pretend its proposed 2013 budget will guarantee no fare hikes in the next three to four years.

In short, it didn’t need to oversell a budget that closes a $165 million gap.

That’s because the agency’s $1.39 billion spending blueprint can be defended on its face. In explaining its revenue and spending plans for the next year, which were released Tuesday, the CTA should have simply stuck to the facts.

Here’s what those facts show: The agency deserves credit for holding the line on base fares, trimming management and labor costs, avoiding stopgap financial shenanigans and putting the CTA on a more solid financial footing.

It also deserves credit for continuing the policy, begun with last year’s budget, of resisting the temptation to dip into capital funds to pay operating expenses. Instead, local, state and federal money will be channeled toward more than $2 billion in modernization projects — admittedly a drop in the bucket for such a sprawling transit network, but progress.

It all adds up to a plan we think most Chicagoans will support.

No one, especially someone on a very tight budget, likes to see fares on multi-day passes go up. But as CTA President Forrest Claypool points out, the people who are most sensitive to fare hikes are also the ones most dependent on the rides the CTA provides. That’s why the agency sought to avoid service cuts while keeping basic fares unchanged.

Instead, fares will go up on one-day, three-day, seven-day and 30-day passes, some of which CTA officials believe are more likely to be used by visitors to Chicago. That’s the same rationale for a $5 fee that will be imposed for Blue Line rides originating at O’Hare Airport.

Compared with passes in comparable cities, the CTA’s discount multi-day passes are underpriced, partly because they didn’t go up during two of the agency’s last three fare hikes. In fact, the 30-day pass is cheaper now than it was in 1995.

Public transit systems across the country have been struggling as state and federal funding has dried up. Rather than embark on a hopeless quest for dollars from Springfield or Washington, the CTA devised a budget that roughly relies one-third on administrative savings, one-third on labor savings and one-third on higher fare revenues. That seems fair.

The tone at the CTA also has changed.

Last year at this time, as labor contracts were expiring, Claypool was complaining about high worker absenteeism, contracts that essentially provided pay for no work, an excessive number of vacation days and inefficient work rules that sometimes called for three workers to do a task that could be done by one.

But this year, that’s changed. After months of sometimes difficult negotiations, Claypool now sees the unions as a partner. Tentative new contracts call for $60 million in negotiated savings in labor costs, largely through slowing the rate of growth in health care spending, but also through work-rule changes.

Aiming the fare increases toward visitors doesn’t necessarily bolster the city’s efforts to lure tourists, who also must pay hotel taxes, a special downtown restaurant tax and other fees. But that’s better than balancing the budget solely on the backs of people commuting to jobs.

CTA Chairman Terry Peterson says in his 22 years of public service, including six at the Chicago Housing Authority, change has never been an easy sell.

This budget won’t be an easy sell, either. But it’s one Chicago should buy into.



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