Straphangers, bus riders, and transit workers across Chicagoland can breath a short sigh of relief this afternoon -- there won't be any service cuts to the already depleted Chicago Transit Authority system in 2011 (9 percent of rail and 18 percent of bus service was lopped off last year; more than 1,000 CTA employees lost their jobs), and rate hikes are also off the table for 2011. That's according to the more than $1.3 billion CTA budget (PDF) proposed for the agency's operations for next year.
Still, the Chicago region's main mass transit agency is facing a broad set of fiscal challenges. It will borrow $113 million in capital improvement dollars to keep service and rates the same come January 1. The City of Chicago's 2008 real estate transfer tax increase, meant to help CTA pay its pension obligations, hasn't produced sufficient revenues. For this year, the transfer fee is expected to come in at more than $100 million less than what the agency projected at the time Chicago's City Council passed the transfer tax hike (read more about that tax here). Even as it borrows from its capital dollar pool, the agency calculates it has $6.8 billion in unfunded capital needs.
Like so many other issues, the CTA's woes probably can't be solved without progressive leadership in Springfield. Recall some of the recommendations in Metropolis 2020's recent report on transportation and transit in Illinois: a governor needs to create a Transportation Advisory Commission to clearly articulate policy; the rigid funding formulas that pay for CTA need reform; and the General Assembly should consider doubling the state's gasoline tax.