If you are a CTA or Metra rider who is miffed about paying more to ride buses and trains next year, those higher fares represent only one relatively minor worry for Chicago-area transit customers, according to a new study by DePaul University.
It warns that an even more ominous threat is the looming squeeze on local and federal spending for capital improvements that could thrust the whole mass transit network deeper into disrepair.
Investing about $2 billion a year over the next decade is needed to avert a meltdown of the aging transit system, advised the study, which was commissioned by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and is scheduled for release Monday.
Transit service is already hit or miss, commuters complain. Hardly a day goes by when Metra doesn't blame equipment problems for late trains.
During Friday evening's rush, the CTA was forced to cancel service on the Purple Line Evanston Express because of track-switching problems on the Loop "L." Commuters also were severely delayed on the Pink, Green, Orange and Brown lines, CTA officials said.
The solution to restoring transit infrastructure to a state of good repair is to create a reliable and predictable funding stream totaling about $2 billion annually over at least 10 years for capital improvements to CTA, Metra and Pace, according to the DePaul study, "Tending to Transit," which was authored by Joseph Schwieterman, Laurence Audenaerd and Marisa Schulz.
The transit system's capital needs have grown about 20 percent in the last two years because of recent reductions in investment, the study said. During the same time, transit ridership in the area grew more than 5 percent, it said.
"Budget forecasts call for capital funding to fall dramatically. If nothing is done to change that outlook, there is a real possibility we are going to have 'doomsday' scenarios not long into the future," Schwieterman said in an interview.
Current transit investment in the Chicago area ranges between $900 million and $1.5 billion a year. Even that level of spending is unlikely to continue, in part because the state's 2009 Illinois Jobs Now capital improvement bonding program is drawing down.
The CTA, Metra and Pace will experience increased failures in vehicle rolling stock and other infrastructure, leaving the agencies to "face mounting concern for maintaining operational safety as service quality declines," the DePaul study predicted.
With the state confronting record budget deficits and an unresolved employee pension crisis, prospects appear dim that another major Illinois capital program is at hand, officials said.
In addition, the looming federal "fiscal cliff" and debt-ceiling crises all but rule out that a rescue from Washington is possible along the lines of the Obama administration's earlier economic stimulus program to create new jobs that would rebuild deteriorating roads to bridges and public transit, officials said.
"The federal government is an unreliable partner," Schwieterman said. "There was distressingly little talk about rebuilding transit infrastructure during the presidential campaign."
The average commuter might be hard-pressed to see another transit crisis coming, particularly in light of recent positive statements by officials at the CTA and Metra.
CTA President Forrest Claypool said last week that the agency's 2013 budget plans, which include hiking the prices of all transit passes, "put the doomsday budgets of the past behind us. We're moving forward and building a modern CTA on a strong fiscal footing."
CTA officials also point to a series of system improvements that are funded in the next two years, including rebuilding tracks on the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line starting next May; upcoming rehabs of stations at 95th Street and Wilson, also on the Red Line; purchasing new trains and buses as well as overhauling older buses; eliminating slow zones on the Blue Line between Damen and Belmont avenues and on the Ravenswood Connector serving the Brown and Purple Lines between the Merchandise Mart and Armitage Avenue.
But other infrastructure improvement projects with far larger price tags totaling up to $5.5 billion remain unfunded, including the planned Red Line extension to 130th Street on the Far South Side and the Red-Purple modernization of stations and track from north of Belmont through Evanston.
Meanwhile, Metra said it is increasing the price of its 10-ride ticket next year to help pay for system improvements, maintenance of locomotives and other equipment. Reconstruction of bridges on the Metra Union Pacific North Line is scheduled for 2013.
But it would cost $30.9 billion to bring all three transit agencies to a state of good repair over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by URS Corp. conducted for the Regional Transportation Authority. The breakdown is about 61 percent needed by the CTA, 30 percent for Metra and 9 percent for Pace.
URS estimated that 191 transit bridges will need renovation by 2019, 42 percent of rail cars are beyond their useful life and more than one-third of Metra stations are in poor condition.
Doug Whitley, president and CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce, said Springfield "has gotten away from good fiscal policy" by implementing temporary fixes like short-term capital improvement programs, instead of approving annual capital budgets that the transit agencies can count on for the long term.
"I think it's a crime that an international city like Chicago does not have 20-minute train service between downtown and O'Hare," Whitley said. "Year in, year out transportation investment must happen to keep Chicago a world-class city and Illinois a competitive state."
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