New Argonne/MIT study makes the case for properly funding the CTA

The study is one of the first to quantify the value of public transit across different metrics, including the impact on jobs and health. Public transit needs money, and the CTA needs a new boss and new ideas to change its future for the better.

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CTA Bus #3 on the street

A No. 3 CTA bus heading down a street in the Loop in 2020.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The Chicago Transit Authority’s decline remains one of the city’s biggest concerns.

Getting the CTA back on its feet is vital, because affordable, efficient and safe transit greatly benefits the city and its residents.

Even in its currently weakened state, still recovering from the hit of the pandemic, the area’s transit system remains one of the city’s biggest assets.

We all know this, of course. But a new study released this month by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides even more proof.

Argonne and MIT researchers found every dollar invested in Chicago mass transit generates $13 in economic activity.

Editorial

Editorial

Public transportation is so important, researchers found, that taking it away would result in the cancellation of 2 million daily activities and the annual loss of $35 billion in direct economic activity. Jobs would be lost, businesses would close, the cost of living would increase, and peoples’ health would be negatively impacted.

The South and West sides would be hardest hit. Women and those with lower incomes would be negatively affected, too.

And without public transit, more people would buy cars, each of which cost $10,000 a year in maintenance. Along with more traffic, the increased emissions would create an uptick in particulate matter that can contribute to respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes.

“Everyone agrees transit is important, but exactly how much and to whom remain open questions,” said Omer Verbas, transportation system engineer at Argonne and technical lead of the study. “This study is one of the first, to our knowledge, to quantify transit value across multiple metrics.”

Luckily, no one is discussing completely taking away the buses and trains. But the study says — without saying — that a hobbled and inefficient CTA could bring the city the same woes, just to a lesser degree.

The CTA helped fund the study and allowed the researchers to present their findings at the agency’s board meeting last month.

“We always talk about the CTA being an economic engine in the northeast region of the state, but I think this report is the first time we’ve been able to articulate the real numbers behind that, but also the real impact that a lack of public transit has, particularly on those who are most vulnerable,” CTA President Dorval Carter told board members during the meeting.

“That’s an important part of our message for why the funding we’re asking for is critical,” he said.

Carter is right, and deserves a nod for helping make the study possible. A major infusion of cash is needed, particularly with the CTA, Metra and Pace combined facing a $730 million fiscal cliff in 2026.

But along with the money, the agency needs something else: a new top boss and a fresh slate of managers who can change the CTA for the better.

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