CTA to take the preventive route


By Jon Hilkevitch

Date of Publication: October 15, 1999
Source: Chicago Tribune


Noting equipment breakdowns and unreliable service that have cost the Chicago Transit Authority customers, money and its reputation, CTA President Frank Kruesi on Thursday presented a 2000 budget that maps out ways to remedy the situation with the help of nearly $400 million in additional state and federal funding.

In addition to basic improvements, ranging from new rail cars to air conditioning on all buses to keeping stations cleaner, a key element of the CTA's rebuilding effort focuses on repairing equipment before it breaks down and strands passengers. The effort replaces an equipment evaluation system that often missed failure-prone components and relied heavily on fixing problems after they occurred.

The infusion of big money--the first by the state since the General Assembly approved a transit aid package in 1989--emboldened CTA officials to promise that, for the first time in recent memory, more than half of the transit system will soon be returned to a good state of repair.

The CTA's $1.25 billion budget for 2000, however, won't be enough to advance beyond the design and engineering stages for the rehabilitation of the Douglas branch of the Blue Line and the platform-extension project to increase capacity on the Brown/Ravenswood Line. Those projects remain on hold, contingent on the CTA receiving more than $550 million from Congress in future years.

The new preventive-maintenance practices have been eligible for federal funding since 1995, but the CTA wasn't able until now to afford the commitment. Under next year's budget, the CTA will spend about $200 million on preventive maintenance--almost as much as the agency spent this year on its entire capital infrastructure program.

About $180 million of the total new investment will come from the Illinois FIRST public works program and about $193 million from the federal TEA-21 transportation program.

"Illinois FIRST and the federal funds it unlocked are the difference between dismantling the system and rebuilding it," Kruesi said.

Of the total $1.25 billion in the budget, some $409 million will be directed toward capital repairs and acquiring equipment, up dramatically from $235 million budgeted in 1999.

"Those who question the critical importance of maintaining and replacing aging equipment need only look back to our rail equipment breakdowns during last January's blizzard," Kruesi said.

The budget, which funds $841 million for daily operations, up 5.7 percent from 1999, does not call for any fare increases or service cuts.

About 150 new buses, all of them air-conditioned and fully accessible, will hit the streets next year, followed by more than 500 more new buses over the next four years, according to the budget. By adding air conditioning to some existing buses, Kruesi said, the entire CTA bus fleet will be blowing cold air by the summer of 2003.

Next year's budget also includes funding to take delivery of 142 new rail cars, allowing the CTA to retire the 30-year-old 2200 Series cars that operate on the Blue Line.

Scheduled track and structure improvements will eliminate 80 percent of the slow zones for trains over the next five years, said Jeff Morales, a CTA vice president who is overseeing the transit agency's "reinvention efforts." Currently, weak structure on 20 miles of track requires trains to slow down to about 15 m.p.h.--lengthening commuting times.

Although he wouldn't go into detail Thursday, Kruesi also said service improvements will be offered next year in response to ridership gains of 3.6 percent over the last two years. About 1,000 new bus shelters will be built and more frequent bus and train service added in the downtown area and the major arterial network in order to minimize waiting times and reduce the number of passengers who have to stand on buses and trains, officials said.

Kruesi made it clear, however, that the CTA still could not afford to extend service to new areas or to reinstate any of the controversial service cuts implemented over the last three years.

Improvements also are planned at several heavily used bus turnarounds. More than 20 rail stations will also be upgraded next year, officials said.

CTA Chairman Valerie Jarrett said the CTA's Illinois FIRST budget will allow the agency to address 70 percent of its capital repair needs over the next five years, up from 20 percent in 1997. But Jarrett said the CTA still was $1.3 billion short of the $4.1 billion needed between 2000 and 2004 to bring the agency's infrastructure up to what engineers consider a good state of repair.