A View From the Cheap Seats

November 14, 2007

Ralph Kramden Would Have Been Proud

Filed under: Politics — trzupek @ 10:46 am
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By Rich Trzupek

The military axiom “don’t reinforce failure” applies to many aspects of life. On the battlefield, it means that there’s no point in throwing away troops on a lost cause. The principle also applies to a dead-beat brother-in-law (and we’ve all had them). At some point it’s fruitless to continue bailing out the guy, unless and until he gets his life together.

Illinois should apply the time-honored principle to public transportation in northeastern Illinois, to the RTA, to PACE and most particularly to the CTA.

The CTA has, to be sure, made some reforms under new, and by all accounts, more competent leadership. Yet, those changes don’t go nearly far enough. The CTA is the public service equivalent of your drunken, dead-beat brother-in-law and it’s time for intervention.

The numbers don’t lie. Over the past five years, CTA’s operating costs have gone up an average of 6.5 percent per year, while revenues have only increased by 2.2 per year. It doesn’t take a CPA to understand why the agency is now in debt to the tune of hundreds of millions and, predictably, looking for a hand-out.

That hand-out proposed would come via a one-quarter percent sales tax increase. Would taxpayers be able to absorb the hit? Sure. Should they? Not until CTA gets its own act together and then only if absolutely necessary.

Some legislators disagree with that logic. A current proposal in Springfield would make reform contingent on the tax increase. That’s putting the cart miles ahead of the horse. Worse, it’s an insult to taxpayers. The CTA needs to put its house in order, now, with no strings attached.

The Illinois auditor general estimated that the CTA could save $250 to $300 million per year if it implemented all of the reforms it should. Revenues could, and should, be increased by simply raising fares.

A fare increase is long overdue. Gasoline prices have increased over 170 percent since 1992. In that time, CTA has increased fares about 2 percent per year. If the cost of motoring has gone up so much, why shouldn’t the cost of public transportation reflect those increases as well? Everybody should shoulder their share of the burden.

And there’s more. The contracts that unions negotiated with CTA suggest that the CTA board was either drunk or asleep when they approved the deals. We’re talking contracts that should be in the Guiness Book of World Records for wasting money.

At a certain point CTA workers are both fully vested in the union’s pension plan and get lifetime medical coverage, courtesy of the taxpayers. Care to guess how much service is required before these juicy provisions kick in?

You’re thinking it would have to be a long, long time, aren’t you? Lifetime medical? That’s pretty sweet in this day and age. So what do you think? Twenty years? Twenty-five? Thirty?

Try three.

That’s no misprint. Work for the CTA for a paltry three years and the taxpayers will pay for some of the best health insurance coverage in the world for the rest of your natural life. Bus drivers have come a long way from Ralph Kramden’s two-room apartment, sans icebox.

Obviously those contracts need to change. They need to change today, if not yesterday. “Concessions” by the unions (and I will use the word lightly, for sanity shouldn’t be a “concession”) would save the CTA over $120 million per year.

Those “concessions” shouldn’t be contingent on anything, and they should not be tied to a tax increase. The CTA needs to break its drunken spending habits now. End of story. Whatever additional cash taxpayers choose or don’t choose to pony up should not enter into the equation.

In the short term, our beloved Governor has played one of his favorite games to address the funding crisis. He’s robbed yet another group of unwitting Peters to pay a besotted Paul.

By lifting $5 million from the capital improvement fund, $7 million from road and highway, $10 million from the clean coal fund, he managed to redirect $27 million to the CTA, enough to get it through the end of the year in one piece.

The budget-shifting robbed education, mental-health, our beleagured transportation infrastructure and downstate coal-miners, but this Governor has always made the City of Chicago priority one. Blago doesn’t care who loses, as long as his buddies in the city win.

The plain truth is that the CTA’s’ level of service and its contracts are not sustainable with current revenues. It’s time that the CTA made some hard decisions, instead of begging for charity.

State Senator John Millner summed the issues up with typical aplomb. “Maybe they need more money,” he said. “But the first thing they have to do is to get their own house in order.”

Indeed. Only a fool reinforces failure and it’s time that our elected representatives understand that simple fact.


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