The proposal is still taking shape, but its goal is to reconstruct the Red and Purple lines’ bridges, tracks and stations.
Those are nine miles of heavily used “L” stations and tracks, and its bridges are deteriorated and costly to maintain, officials say.
The problem with this new project, like many others, is that the CTA doesn’t have the money for it.
The Red Line situation illustrates a vexing dilemma for the CTA. Outdated equipment costs more to run, but the agency doesn’t have the money to replace it. It’s a catch-22 that leads to spiralling costs, say transit experts.
The results can be seen in the CTA’s operating budget, which is among the highest in the country, according to federal transit data. Fares, too, reflect that issue: They’re also among the nation’s highest.
Joseph L. Schofer, a transportation expert at Northwestern University, compares funding a transit system to owning a dog: The expenses are continuous.
“You get him, and on the first day you’re having a great time,” he says. “But you have to feed him the second and the third day, and every day thereafter. If you don’t do it, it’s going to die.”
CTA chief Richard Rodriguez: “Until we get the capital funding, our operating costs are going to continue to be high. The investment that needs to be made is capital.”
The CTA’s capital problems range from easily visible items like rail cars to little-known track components.
Many of the “L” cars now in use were designed to last 25 years, but have been running for nearly 40. Others are past 30 years old, according to CTA budget documents.
Portions of the O’Hare Blue Line track system are so old that replacement parts aren’t readily available.
All in all, 42 percent of CTA bridges and 24 percent of CTA rail tracks, are past the end of their useful life. So are 660 rail cars, according to the Regional Transit Authority.
Older rail cars break down more often, and are more expensive to fix when they do, the agency says.
Robert Kelly, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, says it’s partly because parts for older stock are not widely available.
“They’re harder to get,” Kelly says, “and the harder they are to get, the more expensive they are.”
The CTA says it would take $9.6 billion to bring its fleet and facilities up to snuff. But it’s got only $2.8 billion to spend, and so is forced to cherry pick its priorities.
That means it is spending to ensure the system’s aging infrastructure remains safe, rather than investing in making it cheaper to run.
“They’ve managed to shore up their structures so that they have sufficient strength,” Schofer says. “It doesn’t look good, and it’s a sign of long-term inability or failure to reinvest, but it isn’t going to fall down.”
Kelly says the shortage of capital funds is “everybody’s fault,” from the feds down to the state and the RTA.
The CTA’s own decisions have also shifted funds away from the kinds of capital expenditures that would ultimately put it on firmer footing.
In each of the past several years, the CTA has shifted millions of dollars from the capital budget to fund day-to-day operations. Those transfers, which officials say will ultimately cost the agency money, were made to avoid unpopular service cutbacks.
“Every time they have a problem with the operating budget, they are forced to take money away from their capital projects,” says state Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), head of the House’s Mass Transit Committee.
The CTA also wants to build new “L” lines at the same time it struggles to shore up the existing system.
The agency says those plans are aimed at providing maximum benefit to riders, but did not address whether they make sense given the aging infrastructure.
Kelly explained that there is some logic to the plan.
“If you extend our lines, you pick up more people,” he says, “and if you pick up more people, that’s operating money, which we need.”
But he adds that fixing existing lines must take priority.
Rodriguez recently went to the Washington, D.C. to lobby for support, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wants more money for aging transportation systems like Chicago’s.
While federal funding typically favors new transportation projects, a report from the Federal Transit Administration says the largest transit systems are underfunded by $5.9 billion per year. Durbin is pushing for more funding next year.
~ Adrian G. Uribarri contributed to this report.