RTA director talks CTA, ridership and budget crisis

RTA Executive Director Stephen E. Schlickman began the year with several challenges: new leadership at the Chicago Transit Authority, a call for more minorities and women at transit agencies, and a multimillion-dollar disagreement over the extent of the CTA's 2008 budget deficit.

The RTA and the CTA are waiting on last year's final quarterly results to reconcile their figures next month.

But there are also bright spots for the leader of the Regional Transportation Authority.

The American Public Transportation Association released figures that show a four percent climb in mass-transit ridership nationwide in 2008, and the RTA's ridership growth was even larger than the national average. The agency also received more than $400 million in federal stimulus funds.

Meanwhile, transit officials say they're hopeful that the Illinois Legislature will adopt a new capital-spending bill for their agencies this year.

Schlickman recently spoke to the Daily News about ridership trends, financial worries and solutions to the budget crisis.

Q. What do you make of the APTA's ridership numbers?

A. What's affecting the industry nationally is probably similar to what's affecting us locally. Our ridership tracks the growth of gas prices pretty nicely. Yet when gas prices went down last year, our ridership continued to grow. It might be that the spike in gas prices was so dramatic -- it was sort of a belly punch -- that people really pushed hard into changing from their vehicles on the road and into public transit. Once they've learned about it, they're staying with it.

Stephen E. Schlickman leads the Regional Transportation Authority. / By Courtesy

Q. Does this mean people are changing their transportation habits over the long term?

A. There are people who will never have the option of doing anything but driving. But I think people are going to make more economical decisions. They'll turn to options that are cheaper and possibly better for them. Also, congestion is a real driver. Before, suburbs didn't care about transit. They wanted more roads. Now, most of the inner suburbs and some of the outer suburbs are built out. They can't build more roads.

Q. What could stop the ridership trend?

A. What might drive ridership down would be the deterioration of service or a cut back in service because of our financial situation. That happened in 1982: There was a massive drop-off in ridership that we didn't recover from for many, many years. It was precipitated by a change in the public-funding source, from a motor-fuel tax that the RTA levied to a sales tax, which we currently have. The sales tax did not produce enough revenue. At same time, there was double-digit inflation. We were way below budget and limped through in '81 and '82. We went through fare increases and service cuts on the entire system. The loss in service had a devastating impact on ridership.

Q. Could farebox revenue from a growing number of riders help the RTA's financial situation?

A. The numbers this year are so dramatic that it's not going to be much of a help. We are projecting for the CTA a $155 million shortfall in revenue this year. The objective is to get through this year without any serious fare increases or service cuts. A significant increase in fares with a serious cut in service would result in a serious fall in ridership. It might solve your budget problem, but it might hamstring your goal in the long term of growing ridership. It doesn't serve your business well, and it doesn't serve the people that you're mandated to serve, either.

Q. So what's the solution?

A. We're looking really hard at everything: short-term borrowing, shifts from operating revenue to capital, stimulus money. The bottom line is that, near term, what we need that's outside of our control is getting a new state capital bill. The stimulus money was a one-time hit, one year's worth of funding. We need 20 years of additional funding, not just one year. You can make that case from the point of view of Chicago and Illinois and the nation. We are way behind. Even now, as this economy is in a downturn, China is spending so much more on infrastructure than we are in this country. If the federal government were to meet that challenge, that definitely will help us here, in Chicago.