“We take the newer employees and we try to spend as much time as possible with them to get them encouraged to, as I did, come up through the system and see where they can end up at.
“So it is challenging. Our infrastructure is an old infrastructure. We’re doing a lot of rebuilding.”
Brown explained to me that CTA has $6.8 billion (yes, billion) in unmet capital needs just to get its infrastructure up to a state of good repair and keep everything going. Of that, $5.3 billion would be spent on rail enhancements — if they had the money.
“[It’s] no different than any other large agency or any other large company in the system. Now we’re struggling to keep up with the technology and times to provide the best service we can to our customers,” Brown says.
The unmet $6.8 billion in capital needs wouldn’t even modernize the entire system or meet the system’s current ridership demands, which Brown says is on a constant upward demand level. In fact, CTA has had ridership growth in 10 of the last 11 years.
“It does not meet our current ridership demand,” Brown admits.
“It would get us to a point that our customers would not be as inconvenienced in some of the areas where our slow zones are limiting the speed in which we can travel.
“So that would remove a lot of the slow zones that were put in due to the deterioration of the track ties and things on the right of way that our customers are feeling the strain of underneath the slow zone.”
Faced with “doomsday” cuts as little as a year ago, the CTA is still in the situation facing numerous other U.S. transit authorities — increasing ridership without the operating funds needed to serve them.
When asked if CTA’s rail side was at an operating shortage, Brown’s answer was simple, “Yes we are.”
“The operating side of our business is below our budget as well as what we would like to see it at. As I said earlier we surely would say that the money would not … if we got the money it would be justifiable money. We would find a need for, and not say that we were doing something over and above that was not needed.
“So we’re pretty much underfunded in every area of our budget.”
As Wanda Taylor, CTA medial relations manager explained to me, despite recovering more than a 50 percent farebox recovery, CTA is faced with a deficit in large part due to its reliance on taxes for its funding.
“The challenge as you mention for the operations side has been largely because of the fact that the sales tax revenue and the real estate transfer tax revenue has not been at a level that was anticipated primarily because of the economy nationwide. So that funding is totally dependent on the economy. And when it’s lower than expected then you end up having the budget deficits on the operations side,” Taylor says.
Taylor told me that CTA halved its $155 million budget deficit with cost-cutting measures, but even with some additional funding the agency needs to look for ways to make up the difference without cutting service, which she says is the very, very last resort.
“That is not something that is getting any type of serious consideration at this point,” Taylor says.
“We are just continuously looking for other ways, different things that you can do whether it’s early retirement for some people. You are going to lose some folks just due to attrition. You know the system’s old, but you also have employees who’ve been here for a very long time so there are a lot of them who are reaching that retirement phase of their lives. You have that. Not filling vacancies right now. A hiring freeze so to speak. Just not filling vacancies. That saves money, too.”
Both Brown and Taylor agree that creatively filling the budget deficit shouldn’t include cutting service or anything else that is going to impact customers.
“We’re looking at actually trying to increase service to provide better service,” Brown says.