CTA warns of doomsday budget

February 17, 2009 6:51:01 AM PST
Despite a recent fare increase, mass transit in the Chicagoland area is facing financial troubles due to the weak economy.The Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and PACE all face budget problems. The newest one- fewer dollars coming from taxes that were raised last year to help with funding problems.

The latest cash crunch could leave area transit agencies more than $200 million in the hole, despite a recent CTA fare increase.

In January 2008, the Illinois General Assembly approved a sales tax hike for mass transit- and the governor added the "Seniors Ride Free" program. The tax hike was meant to add some stability to transit funding, but that was before the economy hit the slow zone.

"It's a downturn we haven't seen in our lifetimes. It certainly wasn't predicted in the beginning of 2008," said Steve Schlickman, RTA executive director.

Tax revenue projections from the RTA paint a bleak picture. For 2008 and this year, the CTA will receive $213 million less than expected, Metra will get $72 million less, and Pace will get $25 million less than expected.

"The magnitude of this shortfall is the most serious I've seen in my 30 years at Pace," said Terance Brannon, Pace deputy director.

Pace officials say it is premature to talk service cuts or fare hikes, but some long-term planned improvements, like suburban express bus service, may go on hold.

"Now those plans have to be shelved in the near term until we get a handle on what it means for the long term," said Brannon.

The CTA just hiked fares in January. Board members will be meeting this Wednesday to talk about what the new numbers might mean. While no one can guarantee it won't happen, the CTA, Metra, Pace and the RTA are all talking down fare hikes and service cuts.

The RTA does have borrowing power, and right now that may be the path out of the red zone.

"We think our borrowing authority, plus the stimulus, plus the state's capital plans, plus the federal transit bill, will help us get through this year, and our hope is it will help us get through without a serious impact on our riders," said Schlickman.

Those are pretty strong 'ifs,' and should one of the components go south, or should the economy continue to tank, all of the transit agencies will have serious problems which they need attended.