Our transit system provides over two million rides per day to residents of the Chicagoland region. The benefits of a strong transit system for our community are many: it reduces road congestion, helps get millions of people get to work affordably and efficiently, attracts jobs, employers, commerce and development, enables sports and other special events, and keeps our air cleaner. Better transit means a better quality of life for our region. By advocating for transit, we show our community leaders and representatives that it is important to us and should be made a top priority.
AAA estimates the average annual cost of driving at $8,588. A better transit system could lower transportation expenses and bring additional economic benefits to the region. Transportation costs vary greatly throughout the region and depend on how much a household is dependent on driving. Households that drive frequently have to pay for gas, insurance, maintenance, and parking. And generally, households with access to transit have lower transportation costs. According to research by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, in some suburbs, average transportation costs are as high as 22 percent of area median income. That’s money that could be spent on goods and services in our communities, instead of poured into a gas tank.
CTA, Metra and Pace are each led by an executive director or president who is responsible for how the agency operates on a day-to-day basis, future planning and general management. Each has its own board of directors that governs the agency. The makeup of each board varies, but in general, they are comprised of individuals appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, county officials, and the governor.
CTA, Metra and Pace are also overseen by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which distributes funding collected from regional sales tax and grants provided by the state and federal governments, and performs certain planning and outreach functions. RTA, which has its own board of directors, is responsible for coordinating efforts regionally across the three transit agencies.
Our elected officials also play a critical role. Along with controlling sources of funding, various elected officials throughout the region appoint the members of the transit agency boards—primarily the governor, Chicago Mayor and county board president hold this power. For this reason it is very important that we engage them in our fight to improve transit.
Transit riders contribute to the cost of the transit system by paying for their rides. All residents of the region help cover its cost through regional sales tax, and Chicago residents make an additional contribution through a real estate transfer tax. The State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, Cook County and grants from the federal government provide much of the funding our system needs.
All forms of transportation are subsidized—our roads, highways and airports all receive public funding. Transit systems provide benefits to the whole community—not everyone uses it, but everyone benefits from the reduced congestion, cleaner air and economic development. Individuals who can’t afford cars, choose not to drive or are physically incapable or restricted from driving still need to get around the region to access schools, jobs, shopping and services.
The current economic climate has a lot to do with the shortfalls we are seeing. Because of the recession, two of the most important funding sources, the sales tax and real estate transfer tax, haven’t produced the expected revenue. Meanwhile, the costs of transportation—especially fuel—just keep going up. The state government is also facing deficits, and deferring payments to the RTA. This puts even more financial pressure on the agencies.
But the reason this has been a recurring problem is that transit has been routinely neglected by our elected officials. At the national, state and local level we spend the vast majority of our transportation dollars on roads and highways, and a much smaller piece of the pie on transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Chronic underinvestment has led to deterioration of the transit system, and more limited resources have forced the transit agencies to make hard choices between maintenance, improvements, and operations. What we really need is to give transit its fair share of our transportation dollars.
A government mandated audit of the system in 2007 revealed that while there are some redundancies in the functions performed by the CTA, Metra and Pace, our transit agencies are in line with their nation-wide peers in wages and productivity. The audit reports that our transit agencies are doing the best they can with what they have, and at the moment the biggest barriers to better service is the deteriorated system our operators contend with.
No agency wants to raise fares or cut service—it’s choosing between a rock and a hard place, because both drive away riders. Despite the fact that fare increases and service cuts hurt riders, transit agencies must consider these options because they are broke. Transit funding is frequently not enough to pay the bills, let alone expand our service to the world class system we deserve. By refusing to make transit a priority, our elected officials leave them no choice.
There is no easy way to get our transit system to a place of financial stability where we can consider expanding and improving service. Most likely it will take a combination of improved efficiencies and increased funding. But the most important first step is to engage our elected officials in the debate. They need to know that we care about our transit system and want to see much greater investment in it.
Riders for Better Transit staff are interested in your comments and concerns as riders. We want to advocate on your behalf, so feel free to contact us. We don’t, however, have the power to directly address many types of problems—we can’t replace a missing bus stop sign or track down a particularly cranky train operator. So in many cases, the relevant agency needs to hear from you directly. Check out our comments/complaints page for tips and direction on submitting comments that get results.
Municipal, state, and federal elected officials need to hear that transit is important to their constituents before they will make it a priority. Riders can have a greater impact by speaking out together. But the issue of transit and its funding is complex and ongoing; being a part of Riders for Better Transit means you’ll have help navigating it—you’ll get the most important news and we’ll let you know when there’s a particular policy, piece of legislation, or issue that you should contact your representatives about.
Similarly, transit agencies need to stay tuned to the needs of their riders, and each rider by him/herself can only have so much impact. Riders for Better Transit will help convey the top priorities from the rider perspective to make sure the agencies are focusing on what we want most.