CTA facing big budget deficits

February 18, 2009 3:00:03 PM PST
The Chicago Transit Authority faces budget deficits of more than $240 million over the next two years. That means the CTA may have another doomsday scenario to deal with. While CTA officials say fare hikes and service cuts are a last resort, officials are worried about how they are going to address huge budget shortfalls.

The economy is to blame for the transit authority's latest money troubles. Despite that, the agency that oversees transit funding is hopeful that it can come up with enough cash to avoid a doomsday scenario, at least for now.

Armed with increased ridership, revenue from last year' sales tax hike and new fare increases, CTA officials began the new year in what they thought was good shape.

But the Regional Transportation Authority burst that bubble by telling the CTA the tanking economy has caused a huge shortfall in this year's budget as well as last year's.

"Obviously, I have some concerns about the 2008 budget. 2008 is over and the notion that we were just told we were going to have to make adjustments to that budget concerns me," said Carole Brown, CTA board chairman.

The CTA says declining collections in sales and the real estate transfer taxes are causing an $87 million shortfall for 2008, and if the economy continues to get worse, the word doomsday is likely to be back. Although, the CTA is downplaying talk of another round of fare hikes and service cuts.

"As always, everything is on the table to do whatever we can to mitigate the negative impact to our riders. But until we know what the RTA plan is going to be, we can't make any determination about what we're going to have to do to balance the budget," said Brown.

RTA officials say they will come back to the CTA in March on how they plan to come up with extra money to fill the gap for 2008 and 2009.

"Between now and then 2010, a number of things happen. We expect that we're gonna get a state capital bill. We also expect that we're gonna get a new federal transportation program," said Steve Schlickman, RTA executive director.

In addition, the RTA is counting on extra cash with loans. Also, RTA and CTA officials are hopeful stimulus package money from Washington will help. That money is earmarked for the capital budget, but in the long run, it will save money in its operating budget.

"If we can replace our rolling stock then we can lower the amount of money we budgeted for preventive maintenance. That would have a positive impact on the operating budget and allow us to do more," said Brown.

The CTA is expecting get about $283 million from the stimulus package.

While RTA officials are hopeful they can come up with the revenue to fill the gaps, they are very worried about 2010. Because the economy is the big unknown, RTA officials described the budget situation next year as scary.