Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hey you kids, Get Off My Lawn! And give me back my one dollar bus ride!

I’ll state it up front. Today, I’m a grumpy old man who’s going to tell you how much better things were when I was young. So if you’re one of those 18-year-olds who can’t handle being reminded that there was a Planet Earth and a society before you came into existence, go read something else.

What has me ticked off today is the word that the Chicago Transit Authority is seriously considering another rate increase.

$3 PER RIDE. Whoa!

I used the CTA as recently as Saturday, and I can remember the thought of disgust that went through my mind as I was pumping change and dollar bills into those vending machines so that I could use the subway to get from the Loop to the Near North Side (the Chicago History Museum at Clark and North, for those of you who just have to know).

Now, the thought that the same ride is going to cost one-third more. That ticks me off.

Part of it is that I can remember the days when I was a regular user of the CTA – my younger days when I took full advantage of the fact that one can live in Chicago without an automobile.

I STILL REMEMBER how to use the elevated trains to get to just about any region in the city, with the buses then working to fill in the gaps.

Back then, it was one dollar. Actually, I can remember the level of trauma many Chicagoans felt when it went from $0.90 for the ride and a dime for the transfer to $1 for the ride and an extra coin for aforementioned transfer.

It seemed like we were being massively ripped off. The very thought that our lone buck wasn’t enough, and that we’d now have to carry bills and coins for our bus/train fare somehow seemed absurd.

Now, it seems like as dated a memory as when my mother talks of how bus rides in this city were once a quarter.

ACTUALLY, IT ISN’T the cost so much because I can accept the idea that things cost more now than they used to. I can appreciate the idea that the CTA can’t function on the same amount of money as it used to in past decades.

So the thought of fare increases is a necessary evil.

But if it goes to maintain the kind of transit service that allows one to function in the city without an automobile, then it becomes worth it. In short, if I thought that things would get better with an increase, I’d have little problem (although still some grumbling) with paying it.

Even at $3 per ride.

BUT WHAT TICKS me off is the fact that this fare increase is being paired up with service cuts – a 9 percent drop in train service and 18 percent less bus service.

Now I don’t know exactly what those percentages mean. I suspect certain bus lines will simply run less often and will stop running at earlier times in the evening. There likely also will be less “late night” service, although in all honestly the amount of late night service being offered is already such a reduction from the days of the past that there are times I wonder what is being accomplished by pretending that our city has a 24-hour mass transit system?

We’re being asked to pay more for less service. That irritates me.

I’m a believer in mass transit, and happen to think that its presence is one of the factors that helps distinguish a metropolitan area of quality from one that is merely second rate.

DURING THE PORTIONS of my life where I have lived outside of Chicago (my life story is one of repeatedly moving from the city, then returning to it), I have been in places where mass transit systems usually consisted of a few bus lines that would take people to some select places.

A look at transit system maps for those cities usually would show large portions that had no such service (usually with the explanation that the local politicians catered to those residents who didn’t like the idea of just anyone being capable of coming to their neighborhood).

And those systems usually cut off at some insane hour of like 5 p.m., and had limited (or no) service on weekends.

My reaction to those cities (none of which I would want to live in again) is, “why bother?” If they can’t put forth a system that can actually move people about in large numbers, why have a third-rate system that accomplishes little?

AND MY REACTION to Chicago is to wonder if this is just another step toward giving us a third-rate system that makes it impossible for certain people to go to certain places within the city.

Now I realize the CTA is being hit with the same problem that is impacting many other local government entities across the state – Illinois government’s financial problems are causing them to cut their funding for local programs and also make the aid payments they’re still promising on a schedule that is months behind.

CTA officials claim that this $3 per ride talk wouldn’t be taking place if the state were to cough up what it had previously promised, let alone what it has offered in the past.

The problem with making such cuts is that once they are done, they tend to be permanent. Even when economic times do get better and the state gets closer to paying its bills in a timely manner, I wouldn’t be too optimistic that the CTA will be able to restore things.

THIS COULD BE one of the casualties of the fact that the General Assembly was so adamant in not wanting to have to come up with a permanent solution to balance out the state’s budget back in July – instead preferring to come up with makeshift solutions whose time is now running out.

Government officials being afraid to do something that can be distorted by political cranks on Election Day is a part of this problem, and it is one that has the potential to turn many things in our society into third-rate replicas of what they once were.


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