Since 2009, regular CTA fares have held steady while all other major U.S. transit systems have raised their rates, but it looks like that's about to change.
The writing was on the wall after November 8, when Leanne Redden, head of the Regional Transportation Authority, wrote CTA president Dorval Carter arguing that the CTA needs a fare hike to plug its budget gap and avoid major service cuts. Last summer's Illinois budget deal included a 10 percent reduction in state funding for all three transit agencies, plus a 2 percent sales tax surcharge that must be remitted to the state for administrative purposes. In response Pace and Metra officials have already announced that they'll raise fares in 2018.
The CTA alone will be out some $33 million in revenue, and Redden warned that if a balanced budget isn't approved by February 1, it will trigger mandatory withholding of 25 percent of RTA operations funding, about $360 million a year, leading to a huge reduction in CTA service. "None of us wants to go down that path," she wrote. In the letter's wake, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Tribune that "everything's on the table but one thing: There will be no service cuts." What he hasn't ruled out is a fare increase.
We'll soon learn what's in the cards—the CTA is slated to announce its final 2018 budget this week. Thus far no one's said how big a fare hike might be needed, but it should be noted that even a 25-cent increase to the current fares of $2.25 per train trip and $2 per bus ride could tip the scales for some customers, who might turn to other affordable options like Uber Pool, Lyft Line, or Divvy as an alternative, which could be counterproductive for increasing revenue. Moreover, an extra quarter per ride adds up to about $120 a year for daily round-trip commuters, a nontrivial expense for working-class Chicagoans and a real hardship for some impoverished residents.
So transit advocates say that if raising fares is inevitable, the CTA should take steps to improve service and should adopt a more equitable payment policy to soften the blow for lower-income folks. Otherwise it faces additional decreases in ridership.
"State legislators should never have let things get to this point," says the Active Transportation Alliance's government relations director Kyle Whitehead.
Things may not be completely hopeless, however. Earlier this month Active Trans released a report, "Speeding Up Chicago Buses," with proposals to boost CTA bus ridership, which could help offset losses stemming from a fare hike. Bus use has dropped by 21 percent since the Great Recession hit in 2008, a slump the group blames on reduced bus speeds due to increased traffic congestion and competition from ride hailing.
The study focuses on six of the busiest routes in the system, all with high potential for improvements: #4 Cottage Grove, #8 Halsted, #53 Pulaski, #66 Chicago, #79 79th, and #80 Irving Park. It outlines several relatively low-cost, short-term strategies to shorten travel times, which could mitigate a potential ridership slump.
These include building more car-free bus lanes (which already exist on the downtown Loop Link corridor and the south side's Jeffery Jump route) and enforcing them with traffic cameras. Transit-friendly stoplights shorten reds or extend greens to help buses travel more efficiently—the city is currently implementing this technology on Western and Ashland. And prepaid, all-door boarding can reduce "dwell time" at bus stops. Whitehead adds that elected officials should look into establishing discounted fares for low-income residents, similar to what currently exists for seniors, students, and people with disabilities.
Center for Neighborhood Technology director Scott Bernstein argues that the CTA can add value for riders and raise additional revenue to prevent future hikes or cuts by upping its real estate game. The city's recently passed transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance, which eliminates the usual car-parking requirements for new construction near train stops, has led to a boom in upscale residential development along north-side el lines, but he says Chicago needs more affordable housing near stations, which would grow ridership.
He adds that renting CTA properties to more useful types of retail, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, could help make stations "destinations, not just origins." For example, the Wilson Red Line station, currently under renovation, will have new retail space available. More than 2,500 people have signed an online petition asking the CTA to rent it out to the upcoming Chicago Market food co-op.
Streetsblog's Steven Vance has floated a couple other proposals to make CTA fare policy more equitable in the event of a hike. Currently, single-ride paper tickets cost $3, or 75 cents more than the fare with a Ventra card. And unlike card holders, riders who pay cash to board a bus have to pay the full fare again if they transfer to a train. More aggressive marketing of these advantages could boost enrollment and save money for riders who make the switch.
Vance also suggests that the CTA implement fare capping so that customers who pay as they go for multiple rides on a single day never spend more than the price of a one-day pass, currently $10. This would be helpful for lower-income riders who don't want to invest a Hamilton on a pass for fear that they might not get their money's worth. Under this scenario day passes would no longer offer a cost savings, but they'd still be handy for visitors who don't want to purchase a permanent Ventra card, as well as for nonprofits that buy passes in bulk to distribute to clients. London, the first major city to implement fare capping, uses the same fare-card concessionaire as Chicago, Cubic Transportation Systems, so it shouldn't be too hard for Ventra to adopt it.
If a CTA fare hike is in our future, how about some sugar in the form of service and equity improvements to help the medicine go down? v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.