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CTA fare hike better than service cuts, Emanuel says

Setting the stage for the first increase in base CTA fares in about eight years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday said a price hike is preferable to service cuts. | Sun-Times photo

A CTA fare increase would be better than service cuts, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Wednesday, setting the stage for the first across-the-board fare hike in eight years.

“I’ve been very clear that the one thing that is definitely, 100 percent off the table are any service cuts. In fact, a little longer than a year ago, we actually expanded service on the South Side,” the mayor said after a City Council meeting.

“The RTA has been pushing the CTA — as they pushed both Pace and Metra [to raise fares]. But I told them first and foremost, you can say everything is on the table but one thing: There will be no service cuts.”

The CTA’s basic fare currently stands at $2.25 for rail and $2 for bus service.

Emanuel said he appreciates the “hard decisions” that have made possible an eight-year freeze that runs contrary to the annual increases imposed by Metra in recent years.

But he has asked CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. to take another look and “report back what is in the central office that can be eliminated, cut or pulled back from.”

“That means whatever you have to do is smaller. … Until that’s done, there will be no discussion with me. … Before you get to that question [about raising fares], I have to have answers to my first questions,” he said.

“The RTA has been explicit with the CTA. But I’ve been also explicit. No service cuts. Look somewhere else first, and then come back.”

Chicago aldermen poised to raise ride-hailing fees and ship the $16 million in annual revenue to the CTA to bankroll $180 million in capital improvements agreed with the mayor that a fare hike would be easier for their constituents to swallow than service cuts.

In fact, they seemed almost resigned.

“I would be in favor of a fare increase because there hasn’t been one in eight years — depending on the amount,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

Pressed to pinpoint what he called a “fair fare hike,” Villegas said: “Maybe 5 to 10 percent. And then, I would have to see … what does that generate. If it’s a fair increase, then I can support it.”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), whose North Side ward includes Wrigley Field, noted that “two-thirds” of his constituents use public transit.

“They understand that prices have to go up. … They’re more concerned about service and reliability,” Tunney said.

“Will they be happy? No. But, they’re very upset about the No. 11 bus [Lincoln Avenue] bus gone. They want more trains. But people have to understand that we’ve got to live with gradual inflation. Part of the problems with the parking meter [deal] is, we doubled `em overnight. That’s what people don’t like.”

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), chairman of the City Council’s Rules Committee, said she is “strictly on board with maintaining service to communities of color that really need to be able to get back and forth to work.”

“I cannot tell my people that ride public transportation that that bus is not gonna be riding down their street,” Harris said.

“We haven’t done fare increases since 2009, but yet the cost of services and doing work here in the city—the prices keep going up. So, at some point, we’re gonna have to consider it. … It’s just the nature of government in that, revenues continue to shrink, but we have to continue services.”

If a fare hike is inevitable, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) said it shouldn’t be across the board. It should be a “distance-based” fare increase that starts at the city limits. The farther you go in the suburbs, the more you pay.

“It’s fundamentally unfair for my constituents at Division and Ashland that take the Blue Line to pay the same fare that someone who gets on the Purple Line in Evanston,” Moreno said.

“I’m talking about Skokie. I’m talking about Evanston. I’m talking about Oak Park” and Wilmette.

Carter dismissed distance-based fares as too costly to implement, even if they start at the city limits.

“The question of what it would take to create a distance-based fare program is also a question of money,” he said.

“Even if, as a policy matter, we thought it was something we would do, there’s a significant capital investment that we’d have to make…to put in an infrastructure that could accommodate that kind of system. It’s important that I focus on the things that I can make happen now.”

Earlier this month, the Regional Transportation Authority that must approve the CTA budget set itself up to play the political heavy.

In a letter to Carter, RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden declared that the tentative CTA operating budget submitted to the RTA on Oct. 23 “did not offer clearly identifiable and reliable revenue streams” to close a $33 million budget gap.

The shortfall was triggered by a state budget that includes a “permanent, two percent sales tax surcharge” imposed by the state, a ten percent reduction in Public Transportation Funds” and a slowdown in “sales tax growth,” Redden said.

“Over the last few budget cycles, the RTA Board has expressed concerns that, unlike other major urban transit agencies, CTA has not raised its base fare since 2009,” Redden wrote.

“Fare increases, while onerous, are the most reliable way to generate revenue and achieve the CTA and regional recovery ratios [requiring 50 percent of revenues to come from fares] As such, the RTA strongly encourages the CTA to implement a fare increase for 2018 sufficient to bring the preliminary operating budget into balance.”