Exchanging backslaps and high-fives, transit officials and politicians congratulated themselves last year for ending a string of annual CTA budget crises by passing small tax increases aimed at providing stable funding for years to come.
Those predictions, offered amid early signs of the recession, could hardly have been more off the mark in the wake of Monday's announcement that the CTA faces its worst budget crunch in recent years.Fares climbing to as high as $3 a ride, waits of up to a half-hour to board crowded buses and trains, and more than 1,100 CTA employee layoffs will be needed to help dig out of a projected $300 million hole in the $1.3 billion budget for 2010, officials said.
The hardships confronting commuters will start Feb. 7 unless increases in public subsidies or major concessions by CTA unions develop in the next month or so, officials said.
The dire warnings set the stage for yet another transit "doomsday." But riders have faced such threats before without seeing massive cuts or huge fare increases implemented.
Many commuters also said they remain skeptical of assertions by CTA executives that the agency has cut wasteful spending.
Ashley Aponte, 20, wondered whether a $3 train ride, which is 75 cents more than the current rail fare, was the CTA's way of persuading people to buy more cars, which, ironically, would boost local sales tax revenue to the transit agency.
"At that rate, you might as well pay for gas," said Aponte, who lives on the South Side.
CTA President Richard Rodriguez acknowledged Monday that the way things are going, "we are discouraging people from riding our system." But Rodriguez noted it costs the CTA an average of $7 to provide each ride.
And even though CTA officials last week identified $122 million in internal cuts in next year's budget, that still leaves a $178 million deficit.
A chunk of that deficit could be made up by repealing the free rides program that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich offered to senior citizens last year. Free rides were later expanded to include low-income disabled people, disabled military veterans and active military personnel in uniform.
The free rides will cost the CTA $30 million this year, and they are expected to double next year, Rodriguez said.
But Rodriguez and new CTA board Chairman Terry Peterson said they have no plans to ask Gov. Pat Quinn or the General Assembly to return to a reduced-fare system for riders who now receive free rides.
That leaves other passengers to shoulder more than $83 million in fare increases.
Under the proposed new budget, the regular bus fare would increase 25 cents, to $2.50. Express bus and all rail fares would jump to $3 from $2.25 now. Most unlimited-ride passes also are slated to get more expensive, including the 30-day pass, rising to $110 from $86.
Transfers would remain 25 cents. But riders who use the CTA smart fare cards, the Chicago Card or the Chicago Card Plus, who now pay a discounted $2 bus fares, would pay the full $2.50 fare.
Some 110 of the CTA's 150 bus routes would provide less frequent service under the belt-tightening plan, and riders could expect average waiting times to at least double.
"Customers may be less likely to have a seat," Rodriguez said.
Hours of operation would be reduced on 41 bus routes, generally in the early morning and late night. Each would lose 25 minutes to about three hours of service a day, with a few routes even more.
Express bus service would no longer be available on nine routes: X3, X4, X9, X20, X49, X54, X55, X80 and 53AL.