Back on the roads again

“My way is the highway,” says the governor


It is unclear exactly where Illinois’ new CEO wants to take this state, but we have indications in his proposed budget how he would like us to get there. If approved, his budget would spend slightly more of the public’s money on motorcycle safety and on new roads. As Marni Pyke of the Daily Herald has reported, Mr. Rauner would cut funding for paratransit services (in spite of increased demand), cut funding for Amtrak (in spite of increased demand) and begin to phase out the transit fare subsidy for poor geezers and disabled riders. The budget also would cut funding for public transit in the Chicago area (in spite of increased demand) by nearly $130 million; the Chicago Transit Authority alone would take a hit of more than $105 million, which is seven percent of its operating budget.

The new governor’s favorite wheels, of course, are a Harley – the little red sports car for middle-aged bad boys of his generation – and an SUV. (Like they say, the personal is political.) His pro-road stance will be popular Downstate, where everyone (except for those who don’t) moves in cars on roads. But is it wise to continue to spend so much of Illinois’ transportation money where its people ain’t?

Greater Chicago is the engine that is pulling the State of Illinois’ freight. The region is home to two-thirds of the state’s residents. Eight of the state’s ten biggest cities are there. Its residents contribute about 70 percent of the revenues from the state’s income tax and 65 percent of its sales tax revenues.

For Illinois to work, Chicago must work. And for Chicago to work, public transit must work. Downstate “transit” is an issue, a problem. Up there, transit is a thing – a vast, clanking contraption that is as crucial to the region’s operation as its power plants or sewers. The network of suburban trains run by Metra comprises 11 separate lines that link Chicago’s Loop to more than 100 towns at 241 rail stations. It has four downtown termini; every weekday the biggest, Union Station, sees 271 trains arrive or depart that together carry nearly 130,000 passengers. In the year ending June 2014 the busiest Metra line (the BNSF line between the state’s largest city and Aurora, its second largest) carried an average of 68,800 passengers every weekday. That’s more than the total populations of Taylorville, Jacksonville, Chatham, Beardstown, Lincoln and Auburn combined. Every weekday.

Most suburbanites drive, but then most suburbanites have to drive, because the burbs have nothing like the CTA. People took 514.5 million rides on CTA els and buses in 2013, even though ridership was reduced because of snow and extreme cold that canceled many school days. That’s about 1.6 million rides per day. Nearly 753,000 of those rides were on el trains. Some 878,000 rides were made on the CTA’s 1,865 buses that carry people over 128 routes, making about 19,000 trips a day that serve 11,104 bus stops.

I have been riding buses and trains in greater Chicago since the 1960s. I do so because it’s faster during rush hour. Because it’s cheaper than using a car (assuming you have a car; a lot of CTA riders have crap jobs that don’t pay enough to keep a car in the city). Because parking a car downtown will cost you $200 to nearly $400 per month. Because there is no place to drive a car either; Chicago expressways are some of the most crowded in the country, not least because the region’s public transit system has not been able to expand with population because of funding cuts.

Such numbers will change few minds downstate, where having to fund even essential Chicago-area transit is widely resented because, well, Chicago! Before members of that faction will be able to reconcile themselves to spending the public’s money on public transit, they will have to reconcile themselves to black people and to cities; Mike Madigan will take the speaker’s podium of the Illinois House dressed in a tutu before that happens. Meanwhile too many Downstate legislators who decry public transit as a form of welfare will continue to demand state aid for roads back home that cost way more than the sales and excise taxes paid by the people who use and depend on them.

The CTA expects ridership to rise in 2015 with the return of normal weather. Riders also are responding to the improved speed and comfort made possible by rebuilt stations, overhauled tracks, new buses and computerized bus dispatch. (Those investments were mostly federal dollars.) One reform wouldn’t cost anyone much: rename the Chicago Transit Authority the Illinois Transit Authority. The change might, over time, induce a category shift so legislators and voters in the rest of the state begin think of how to better use public transit, not only to keep Chicago moving, but to keep Illinois moving.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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