03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chicago Transit at a Crossroads

I mentioned in a previous post that the Chicago Transit Authority is facing a $300 million deficit next year. This prompted another in a recent series of "doomsdays". As of now, the gap would be closed by raising L fares to $3, bus fares to $2.50, transferring money from capital to operating, eliminating express routes, reducing hours of service, and reducing bus headways to as long as 30 minutes on some routes. Internal expenses are also being reduced.

The CTA's tax revenues come largely from sales and real estate transfer taxes, which have been getting clobbered in this economy. The CTA only really has the power to do two things once efficiencies are captured: raise fares or cut service. This budget isn't good, but compared to other scenarios, certainly could be a lot worse. From the CTA perspective there is simply no way to address the problem without pain.

To be sure, this is only the opening act of the play. We've seen this movie before. Not just in Chicago or even only for transit, we see draconian service cuts prophesied only to be rescinded by a last minute reprieve (see, for example, New York, St. Louis, and Philadelphia libraries). I'm sure the CTA will be visiting Springfield for help. The Mayor and others have already questioned the free rides for seniors program that was recently added under disgraced Gov. Blagojevich. The CTA and the unions will be doing a dance. So there is no guarantee this will happen. (My own suggestion: make sure you don't eliminate service where marginal revenues exceed true marginal costs -- a difficult calculation to be sure).

Still, this budget, even if it doesn't come to pass, has done a great service by showing the city the inevitable future. Service has been trending downward for decades. On very rare occasions there has been some new service, such as the Orange Line to Midway, but the remorseless trend line is down. If the city doesn't get to this doomsday scenario today in one swoop, just give it time and it will likely get there gradually soon enough.

The CTA is well on its way to being a social safety net service with a commuter rail operation on the side.

When headways are reduced to 30 minutes per route, CTA bus service is functionally indistinguishable from the IndyGo network in Indianapolis -- America's 99th largest transit system. You can only have true urban transit with headways of 15 minutes or less -- ideally 10 minutes or better. At even 20 minute headways your average wait time for a bus is 10 minutes. What this means is that you are no longer able to just go to the bus stop and wait for the next one. Rather, you have to consult a schedule. This means you lose most of your discretionary traffic other than commuters. While I won't suggest it was rolled out on this basis, Bus Tracker effectively positions the CTA to start operating this way.

And taking from capital to fund operating will work for a while, but as we know the CTA system has billions of dollars in deferred maintenance already. This is only going to add to it, and end up making the system less reliable.

If you look for reasons why Chicago Loop is thriving, why Chicago almost alone among Midwest cities preserved its urban core, there are many, but among them its transit system must be near the top. While most other cities dismantled their legacy transit system, until now, Chicago preserved its own as a unique asset. Ironically, just as other cities are rediscovering the virtues of public transit and the role it plays in preserving the urban core, Chicago is heading the other direction. While city after city in America is investing to build and expand systems -- sometimes even dubiously, in my opinion -- Chicago is letting its system rust away into dust.

This raises fundamental questions about the city and its future. Can you have a major global city without a real urban transit system? One where transit exists only for those who commute downtown or have no choice, but where otherwise transit isn't woven into the fabric of the city? Chicago might find out sooner than it would like.

As with many wounds to the urban system, the short term effects are often invisible. Cities, especially cities like Chicago, have a complex web of forces that sustain them. As the strands of the web are broken, others might still hold the urban fabric in place -- for a time. But over time, person by person, bit by bit, the system changes and evolves to reflect the new reality. One family buys a car. Another gets a second car. A third simply stops thinking about transit for anything other than commuting to work. Businesses respond by building more auto oriented malls. Traffic, which is already at alarming levels, gets even more gridlocked. People who don't like this start moving -- to New York or San Francisco or London. Those who are left take a skeptical eye towards transit funding since they don't even use it. Chicagoland becomes a less attractive place to do business because of the extreme congestion and bottlenecks. Where does it lead? The future will tell.

I can share this one anecdote that can show you not the future, but the present. During the day at my Chicago Lakeview apartment building, there is only one car in the 10 car parking garage in the basement -- mine. Everyone else drives to work. That's not 2019, it's 2009.

The RTA, CTA, Metra, and Pace can't change this on their own. It will take strong leadership from the business and political communities, as well as demand from the citizens and neighborhood groups. I laid out a plan to get there in my recent five part series on transforming transit in Chicagoland, which I'll link again below.

Changing the trend line for transit in Chicago means changing the game, not more of the same. It means the city needs to stop playing defense and start playing offense. The question is whether it has the will to do so.

A Roadmap for Transforming Transit in Chicago: