Let Chicago motorists save Chicago transit

A CTA brown line train leaves Madison/Wabash s...

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If you were the union rep, would you let 1,100 workers lose their jobs when the city cuts bus and train routes? Or would you spread the pain across your membership by reopening hard-fought contracts, letting politicians whittle away your security/their overhead?

There ought to be a better choice, and maybe there is: let people who drive cars in Chicago subsidize its buses and trains.

It’s high noon on State Street again, with Mayor Daley facing off against the unions that represent Chicago Transit Authority workers. Their war of wills reaches most of us in the form of relentless automated messages on buses reminding us of service cuts to take effect Feb. 7.

Express routes will be eliminated, some buses will stop running overnight and on weekends, the routes that continue will run buses less often, and 1,1oo CTA employees will lose their jobs.

This is nothing new in Chicago. The CTA’s doomsday scenarios are at least an annual event. But this year, fare hikes are out of the question as a condition of the CTA’s most recent state bailout, just three months ago, from Gov. Pat Quinn.

If fare hikes really are ruled out–(rules have a way of bending in Illinois)–the service cuts can only be avoided, according to the mayor, if Amalgamated Transit Union 241 and other CTA unions will agree to renegotiate contracts. If the unions absorb the CTA’s $95 million deficit, they can minimize job losses and lessen the pain for those of us who rely on buses and trains.

So far, the largest union says no:

“I’m not sure what they want, but what they’re asking for is definitely not going to happen,” ATU president Darrel Jefferson told Chicago Public Radio.

The bus-riding public is stuck in the middle. The union wants us to press the city to–what?–raise our fares? The city wants us to pressure the unions, motivating us with relentless automated messages on buses.

And the mayor wants us to show more fight.

“I really believe you have to start building a huge advocacy group for public transportation,” Daley said Wednesday. “You have to start realizing that public transportation is the future of a city like ours.”

Public transportation is also the past of a city like ours.

Once upon a time Chicago had a network of electric streetcars that ran on nearly every arterial. In 1929, they carried more than 900 million rides, compared to 520 million on buses and El trains in 2009. In 1947, when the CTA took over the streetcar lines, the fare was 10 cents, the equivalent of $1 in 2010–half the fare we pay today.

But Americans came to believe that the individual American needed the individual automobile. Choked by congestion and unable to compete, the steetcars died, and the buses and trains have limped along.

Might handicapping the automobile bring them back? Idle streetcar tracks still sleep under many Chicago streets.

Mayor Daley’s wildly unpopular privatization of the city’s parking meters may not have been smart politically or financially, but it is brilliant environmentally.

Cars make the city more dangerous, more dirty, more angry, more ugly. By making it more more difficult and more expensive to park them, more frought with hidden perils, the new parking system improves the market for public transit.

It could do so better. The revenue could go to the CTA instead of to a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley-JP Morgan-Chase. And while it’s too late for that now, the idea could help us solve our perpetual transit woes. Gas tax, parking fee, city sticker, I don’t care: let those who enjoy the private ride fund the public one.

Instead of cutting jobs, instead of cutting bus and El service, instead of raising fares, bring back the streetcars. Or at least solvency for the buses.

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