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.