CTA’s proposed 2016 budget: Tech upgrades, no fare hikes

SHARE CTA’s proposed 2016 budget: Tech upgrades, no fare hikes

CTA customers will see technological upgrades that will make it easier to pay for rides, big improvements to a portion of the Blue Line and increased service on two popular bus routes — all with no fare increases, according to the CTA’s proposed budget.

The $1.47 billion 2016 CTA budget marks the third good-news budget in a row with no fare increases or service cuts.

But the transit agency could hit a snag if the state budget impasse stretches into next year. Still, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said fare increases and service cuts will serve as “absolute last resorts.” Instead, the CTA would try to make cuts internally.

Steele said the CTA, along with Metra and Pace representatives, have been having “very productive discussions” with Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislators to emphasize the need for public transportation funding.

The CTA will launch a free Ventra app later this year that will allow customers to purchase fares and manage their account. Next year, the app will be updated to allow customers to board buses and trains using phones instead of fare cards. They’ll be able to buy CTA, Metra and Pace fares, in some cases avoiding additional fees, like a Metra charge for buying a ticket on the train. It also will include a trip planner and service alerts.

The CTA has allocated $2 million of its budget for the app next year, which is part of multiyear funding meant to cover the development phase and its implementation.

The transit agency also is working to get rid of big lines at train stations at the city’s airports. The CTA plans to upgrade both O’Hare and Midway train stations with express vending machines.

“Those will really speed up the process there,” according to Tom McKone, the CTA’s vice president of Budget and Capital Planning and acting chief financial officer.

Bus riders will see express routes added to the No. 9 Ashland and No. 49 Western buses, which are considered among the busiest routes. That will cost the CTA $3.5 million in operating costs next year. But service will start by the end of 2015.

The CTA also will add more train and bus tracker signs, this time targeting train stations so that commuters can time their bus rides a bit more efficiently.

“We thought, ‘Let’s give people the information while they’re leaving rail stations and heading to the buses.’ We’ll be giving the information so that they know. That’s an incentive that we’ve actually begun, and we’ll continue that next year,” Steele said.

Blue Line riders will continue to see improvements along the O’Hare branch, including the addition of an ADA-accessible elevator at the Addison stop and additional work at the station. Next year, crews will begin work at the Irving Park, Montrose, Harlem and Cumberland stations. The $492 million plan, which is already underway, will update the line’s track and infrastructure. The upgrades will ultimately save commuters up to 10 minutes between O’Hare and downtown.

The CTA set aside $200 million for the Red and Purple Line Modernization project, which is contingent upon federal and local support. Next year, crews will continue advance work, but construction could begin at some point in 2016, McKone said.

The CTA has allocated $5 million for an extension of the Red Line to the Far South Side. The transit agency plans to hold public hearings next year as part of the federally mandated environmental study process.

The CTA also says it will save between $8 million and $10 million by cutting 100 positions. Those are considered “non-critical” positions that do not involve customers.

There are no specific plans to implement a Blue Line express train to take riders to O’Hare, but the CTA said they’re conducting a broad study to understand customer demand in the area, according to McKone.

The CTA’s controversial plan to create bus rapid transit lanes on Ashland Avenue is still in the planning stages, with no dollar amount affixed to the 2016 budget.

The budget is balanced for the fifth straight year and does not transfer capital funds to cover operating costs. The $1.47 billion CTA budget next year marks a $47.4 million — or 3.3 percent increase in spending — with labor expenses increasing $24.7 million. That’s because of a couple of factors, including an extra day due to leap year as well as contractual wage increases.

The CTA revealed on Tuesday that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District will pay the transit agency at least $3.5 million stemming from the loss of Yellow Line service following a construction project mishap on May 17. That figure doesn’t include October figures. The Yellow Line will re-open on Oct. 30.

A public hearing on the budget will be held on Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake. Public comment also will be accepted via email and mail, and a copy of the budget will be posted to the CTA’s website.

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