Bad business: CTA takes a pass | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Bad business: CTA takes a pass 

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In December the CTA abolished its monthly bus/train pass in an attempt to save money.

At the time the proposal drew impassioned opposition from transit users all over the area. But the CTA figured protests would fade once riders realized the passes were not coming back.

"This is an old story," says Jeff Stern, chief spokesperson for the CTA. "This was discussed months ago. The passes are gone--it's over with."

Well, the passes may be gone but rider disenchantment has not faded; one passenger has gone so far as to launch a one-man crusade to bring the passes back.

For the last few weeks James Bottoms has been standing outside bus and train stops, gathering signatures to petitions asking the CTA to reverse its pass policy. He hopes to pick up 5,000 signatures before he's done, while shedding light on a CTA strategy that defies logical transportation policy.

"It's not an old story to me because I feel the effects every day I use the CTA," says Bottoms. "Any way you look at it, getting rid of the passes makes no sense. I've got to let this foolishness be known if only for the therapeutic value of getting it off my chest."

Bottoms is the kind of person the CTA should love, a lifelong public transportation user who rides trains and buses almost every day. As a teenager he rode the CTA to Chicago Vocational High School from his home in Englewood. As an adult he doesn't own a car. He rides the CTA from Evanston to Englewood, where his parents still live, to Wilmette, where he works as a doorman, and to the Loop, where he has a second job as a salesman.

"Why should I own a car when there's the CTA?" he says. "Some people say they're afraid of public transportation, but not me. All the times I've been on it, I've never been attacked. I mean, I don't love the CTA. But it does the job. It gets me where I'm going."

With his two jobs, Bottoms says he doesn't have a lot of time to keep up with all the news on TV and in the papers, and so he wasn't really aware last fall that the CTA was contemplating abolishing its monthly passes.

The passes enabled riders to take unlimited rides for a monthly fee of $78. Senior citizens could buy a discount pass for $33.

But the CTA was looking to trim expenses for various reasons. The state was cutting back its subsidy to the CTA, while forcing more mandates on the transit agency. State law, for instance, requires the CTA to cover half its costs with fares, a higher percentage than is demanded of any other transit agency. Meanwhile, prominent state Republican politicians such as state senate president Pate Philip and Governor Jim Edgar continue to divert transportation spending to new roads in rich suburbs.

"People think that we always hit the fare payer when times are tough, and that's not the case," says Stern. "We've done a lot of belt tightening but our expenses continue to climb. Our subsidy's based on the sales tax, and a lackluster sales tax means our subsidy goes down. Juries are awarding plaintiffs higher awards in lawsuits against us--we estimate to spend $40 million in plaintiff awards this year. We give over $40 million in discounts to students and seniors, as mandated by the state. Yet the state will only pay $20.4 million for those mandates."

In an effort to balance the budget and show suburban legislators that they were prudent fiscal managers, CTA president Robert Belcaster and the CTA board decided to do away with all monthly passes.

From the CTA's point of view, the passes make financial sense only if riders use them once in a while, as a tool of convenience. If, for instance, a pass user rides only to and from work every working day, he or she is spending $78 for $60 to $70 worth of rides. In that case, the pass user subsidizes the CTA. But if a rider hops buses and trains from Evanston to Englewood to the Loop to Wilmette six or seven times a week, as Bottoms does, then the CTA is subsidizing him.

"We discovered that passes accounted for 16 percent of revenue but used 27 percent of our services," says Stern. "The average adult full-fare pass was being used 120 times a month. A lot of messenger services were buying them and having unlimited capacity, which was their privilege to do so."

In other words, the passes were doing exactly what they were created to do--encouraging riders to use the CTA. Getting rid of the passes is part of a larger group of changes that will save the CTA $21.6 million a year, Stern says.

"I don't know exactly how much money we save by getting rid of the passes," says Stern. "I do know we save on the costs of distributing them and printing them. We decided that abolishing the passes would be less of a burden to the general riding public than raising overall fares or cutting services. We made other adjustments, like reducing the cost of a transfer from 30 to 25 cents and from 15 to 10 cents for senior citizens. You can still buy ten tokens for $12.50, and seniors can buy 20 for $12."

The passes were abolished as of January 1, which was roughly when Bottoms became aware of the change.

"When I found out, I was so upset I called the CTA and they connected me with someone in customer service," says Bottoms. "I said, 'The reason we're using these passes is because the CTA told us to use them. You used to have commercials and public service announcements saying use the passes, it's more convenient, it cuts down on the amount of coins and dollars drivers have to deal with. So now that you got us going left, you turn around and go right--and that doesn't make sense.'

This guy tells me, 'Well, people were abusing the passes, they were passing them to their friends.' I said, 'How can that be? If I'm riding all over town day and night, how do I have time to pass my card to someone else?' He says, 'There was this one company where coworkers were passing the passes to each other.' I said, 'Why are you telling me about this company? I don't work for that company. If you got a problem with them, cut their passes, don't cut mine.' He says, 'Well, write us a letter.' Then he hung up.

"Now how's that for advice? Write a letter! When he told me that I was so mad you could have fried a steak on my head. Because that's the stupidest thing I've heard in a long, long time. Write a letter! Why should I write a letter if I'm already talking to the guy on the phone? Here they are raising my fare and then they tell me to go out and buy a stamp to tell them about it. And you know what they're going to do with that letter? They're gonna reverse slam-dunk it right into the wastebasket. Probably won't even open it."

Many other regular riders share his discontent, particularly senior citizens. "The old system was great," says Anne LaFleur, a north-side senior citizen who travels all over the city by bus. "You pulled out that pass and you were on. Now you got little old ladies waiting in the snow and the rain for a bus and then they have to dig those little tokens out of their purses. It takes forever and the drivers get grumpy. It makes you wonder--do the people who run the CTA ever use it? They had a great thing going and they changed it. I tell you, the CTA is goofy."

Bottoms thought his anger would fade in a day or two, but it didn't. "I was waiting in a long line while people fumbled for their change, and I said, 'The hell with this!'" he says.

That evening Bottoms got himself a pen and a pad of paper and went to the Linden Street el stop in Wilmette and started collecting signatures of protest. "I was starting from scratch and to tell you the truth I didn't really know what I was doing," he says. "I just approached everybody in a nice way and said, 'I'm starting a petition to ask the CTA to reinstate passes.' Most people signed but one lady said, 'Young man, you can't just have people sign a notebook. This is not official. It's not going to do any good anyway.' I said, 'Lady, no disrespect to you but nothing from nothing leaves nothing.' In other words, nothing ventured, nothing gained. She agreed with me."

Bottoms took her criticism to heart. Helped by his fiancee, Deneen Coats, and a friend, Shirley McCarty, he printed official-looking petitions. "The elimination of monthly passes has caused a great deal of inconvenience and confusion," the petitions read. "Therefore we request their reinstatement."

In about a month Bottoms plans to turn the petitions over to CTA officials as well as politicians in Evanston and Chicago.

Stern says such pressure should be applied to federal and state officials who continually cut mass-transit subsidies. "Mr. Belcaster recently wrote a letter to the Sun-Times in which he says the automobile is subsidized to the tune of $200 billion a year, which is more annually than all U.S. transit has received since 1975," says Stern. "That's what we're up against."

Bottoms says he's sympathetic--sort of. "I understand the CTA's trying to cut costs. But they can't alienate the people who use them the most. They can't forget that there are real riders out there who use them."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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