Chicago’s public transit should get money before it’s reformed

Why? Because the Chicago transit agencies are already among the most cost-efficient in the country. The Governor’s transit task force, which otherwise savaged local public transit governance in its report last week, also said this:

The region directly competes with others – American regions with extensive legacy systems like New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Boston. Northeastern Illinois leads those regions in lower costs per revenue hour, per revenue mile, and in some cases per trip.

Let’s say that one more time: The Chicago area already runs its transit system more cost-efficiently than every other old big-city transit system in the country.

This is important because, inevitably, people will respond to calls for more funding – calls like the Transit Future campaign – by claiming that the Regional Transit Administration and its babies (Metra, the CTA, and Pace) are too corrupt to be given more money. In fact, the Chicago Tribune has already made exactly that argument in its editorial response to the task force report. Quoth the Tribune:

[The] timeline for change begins with ethics reforms, followed by organizational changes and the adoption of a strategic plan. Then, and only then, we can talk about more money.

There are two reasons why we might feel this way: 1) Because the agencies are such a leaky bucket, full of corruption-holes, that any money we pour into them will likely be lost; and 2) Because we just don’t want to reward agencies that have, clearly, been engaged in all sorts of unsavory behaviors.

But neither of these withstand the least bit of scrutiny. Despite the fact that there is, obviously, a disgusting amount of corruption in Chicago’s transit agencies – particularly, it should be said, in the RTA and Metra – it doesn’t appear to be preventing them from using the money they currently have with a high level of efficiency in delivering the services they exist to deliver. If we’re already literally the best in the nation in terms of cost-effective administration, demanding that we get better – how much better, by the way? What’s the benchmark, when you’re already the best? – before we spend any more money is fixating on the wrong issue. That is, there are problems with our transit agencies – huge ones – but wasteful spending isn’t anywhere near the top of the list.

As for not rewarding crooked leadership, many of the worst offenders named in the report are already gone. But even if they weren’t, refusing to fund public transit because you don’t like transit agency leadership is cutting off the city’s nose to spite its face. The Chicago region needs better public transit for economic growth, social equity, and simple day-to-day livability. This is especially true as its denser core – not just the Loop, but the neighborhoods spreading for miles around it – becomes an ever more important center of employment, culture, and other amenities. Those areas are already bumping up against their capacity for road congestion and parking availability, and there’s no way to increase that capacity without massive highways and the massive takings of private property that would be required to build them. Without increasing access to those areas, though, their growth will choke, to the detriment of the entire region. Improving public transit access is the only way to keep them growing.

But we can’t improve our public transit the way we need to with its current levels of funding, which are dramatically below our peer cities in the U.S. and around the world.


Increasing that level of funding isn’t some crazy, over-the-top spending spree: it’s putting us on an even playing field with Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, and so on.

Moreover, increasing funding is the easy part. The battle over restructuring the RTA will involve overcoming bone-deep territorial politics and enmity between the city, suburbs, and governor’s office. It’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to happen any time soon, most likely. Holding the money we desperately need hostage to that process is a recipe for disaster.

So the Tribune has it exactly backwards. Using money efficiently is one of the few things our transit agencies are doing well. We have to give the Chicago region the resources it needs to build and run a decent transit system now. And then we can begin the sausage-making over governance reform.

8 thoughts on “Chicago’s public transit should get money before it’s reformed

  1. And they wonder why some of us always react with suspicion to a lot of calls to “reform” public transit. It’s because it often means “We’re looking for a reason to either deny giving you more money, or to cut your budget.”

    1. I agree – but the commission’s numbers show Chicago leads in efficiency per revenue mile and per revenue hour, not per rider. I think that’s quite impressive. I would expect Chicago to do worse, and it appears that we do, per rider, but as you point out, that would be largely the result of Chicago’s lower per-mile ridership, which is in turn almost entirely a function of land use and the local economy, not the administration of our transit agencies.

  2. So what do these numbers really mean in San Francisco? SF is the Manhattan to the rest of the Bay Area–do the ridership counts include all the users of BART, Caltrain, AC, Samtrans, GG who use transit to enter and move around SF? If they do,, do the $ ## show the capital/operations spending of all of these agencies?

  3. Thank you. It is considered by many to be a mark of sophistication to point out waste and corruption of big organizations. Often it appears merely as a sop to their ego; a chance to impress. Sometimes they are clever enough to leave the impression that there is no political agenda. Other times it bleeds through.

    So it is refreshing to read a sensible take on the issues of waste and corruption, one that acknowledges their existence yet places them within proportion and context. Thanks again.

  4. I think your post can be summarized somewhat like this:

    1. Although the Chicago region has crappy transit service, it delivers this service very efficiently

    2. Since Chicago shows it can deliver transit service efficiently, give the Chicago region more transit dollars so it can have good, instead of crappy, transit service.


    I’m not against the outcome, and you obviously aren’t either, but in general I think the transit policy discussion fails to make the link between efficiency and quality. What ultimately matters is what riders get as a result of ‘efficiency’: How long do trips take? How long does the same trip take transit vs. auto? How much area is covered by service? What is the quality of service in these areas that are ‘covered’? etc… I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but if we only have ‘efficiency’ measures to go on…well you could have efficient service that is crappy….or you could have efficient service that is good quality. I suppose the opposite holds for both scenarios too: you could have inefficient service that is crappy or you could have ‘inefficient’ service that provided really good service. But would this last example really be ‘inefficient’? Maybe no, maybe yes.

    So I suppose the point of my post is to say that ‘efficiency’ measures don’t mean too much if there is nothing to interpret what riders and the get in return for this supposed efficiency.

    BTW, it would be really neat if there was information for what riders/the region receive in return for the spending levels shown in Figure 1.

    1. I mean, I wouldn’t say that Chicago has crappy transit service – certainly large parts of the suburbs do, but even there the infrastructure is pretty great, at least in a North American context. The issue is things like frequency and land use, as well as a few missing links, like crosstown routes in the city and something very much like the ART bus network Transit Future imagines for the suburban areas.

      But to your point: I totally agree with you that cost-efficiency and “good” service aren’t the same thing. My point here, though, is that if you (and by “you,” I mean the Tribune) think that we should hold off on increased funding until the agencies have been reformed, because otherwise we’ll be wasting our money, you need to show that the agencies are actually, currently, wasting huge amounts of money. (And the Trib isn’t talking about wasting it in the sense of spending money on routes that might be better planned – it’s talking about corruption and kickbacks.) If it turns out that they’re not – if it turns out they’re better at running service with a given amount of money than any other big-city transit agency in the country – then I think you have to reevaluate your argument.

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