The CTA in the Auto Age:
Subsidies and Lines Grow, Ridership Falls (1974-1990)


The RTA Falters as the CTA Struggles

The creation of the Regional Transportation authority in 1974 made some short-term progress in stopping the hemorrhaging wound that was Chicago transit. But the agency made no effort at solving the problem that would eventually become its undoing: escalating costs at the CTA. They increased from $188.7 million in 1970 to $446.1 million in 1979. By the end of the decade, the RTA was running out the funds with which to subsidize the CTA system, which accounted for 70% of the RTA's budget. The RTA raised fares 11% in 1976 and imposed a gas tax of 5% in 1977, but in 1979 a hostile state legislature abolished not not only the gas tax but also the state operating subsidy and replaced it with a differential sales tax of 1% in Cook County and 1/4% in the five collar counties. By 1980, the CTA's deficit had grown to $281.8 million. It was time to control costs, no matter what.

The succession of Chicago mayors after the death of Democratic machine kingpin Richard J. Daley - Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington - allowed for a more liberal atmosphere in which the CTA could take measures unthinkable in Daley's day. Labor costs were cut by reducing the labor force and various other minor economy moves were made where possible. A reduced schedule here, a station closing there. But by 1981, the RTA was bordering on insolvency. The doubling of fares in 1981 drove even more riders away and the CTA was facing dire straits. Operating costs were rising as ridership and market share were dropping. Thousands of riders defected, with a reduction in ridership of 9% between December 1980 and December 1981.

The RTA was in disarray and it took the election of Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, and Governor James Thompson, a Chicagoan, to reform things. An angry state legislature dismissed the RTA board and stripped the agency of its operating powers. They gave them budgetary oversight and planning as their only duties. The compromise of 1983 brought stability to the metropolitan area for almost a decade, though in reality it only slowed the CTA's continued decline.

It was in this atmosphere that the Chicago Transit Authority's planning emphasis was shaped for the next several decades. Regional Transportation Authority chairman Thomas McCracken even suggested, "The CTA's efficiencies have reached the limit of the traditional public service model." CTA Chairman Milton Pikarsky suggested that once again the private sector was the dominant player in urban transportation , though not by owning the transit systems as in the 19th century. In the late 20th century, the location of private companies providing free parking to their large numbers of employees in the suburbs was changing both how and where people commuted. It has often been seen that business leaders have a large impact on future urban development, but it is notable that with the exception of a 1967 Chicago Transit Planning Study the CTA did little or none of its planning in conjunction with the business community. (The 1967 plan is, in itself, an exception in that it was one part of a larger set of urban studies coordinated by the City of Chicago.)

The lack of coordination with business interests in their major planning program was just one of the elements of the laissez-faire planning style that persisted in the CTA from 1970 to the mid-1990s. Whereas planners in the immediate postwar period had concentrated on bringing the system up to a good state of repair and service, the CTA's planners now concentrated only on keeping the existing physical plant going (and often did a poor job at that). Their change in planning emphasis cannot be attributed to the belief that their postwar modernization period had solved the city's transit woes: the far Northwest, Southwest, and far South Sides were still not served by any rapid transit routes. No, instead it was the CTA's funding (or lack thereof) that precipitated this planning philosophy. It took from 1959 to 1974 for the transit lobby to persuade the legislature to provide regular transit funding. This was finally achieved with the passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act in 1970 and the National Mass Transit Assistance Act in 1974. From virtually nothing in 1970, federal subsidies accounted for 80% of capital expenditures on Chicago transit by 1980. In 1974, the Illinois Legislature created the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) to provide budgetary oversight and dispense money from new funding sources for the CTA and suburban transit. Planners, however, were not willing to continue to make radical changes to Chicago's transit scheme as they had in the years following World War II. No new routes were planned (except for the O'Hare Extension [see below], which opened in 1984, but had been part of the original plan for the Kennedy Extension anyway) and the CTA was either unable or politically unwilling to make the changes necessary to reflect changes in land use and population. "L" station closures, service reductions, and fare increases were all that CTA planners were able to come up with during this period, as even the new federal and state subsidizations did not cover the CTA's rising costs. The old methods of planning were not working for the Chicago Transit Authority any longer.



1975 map

New Cars and Line Extensions...

CTA Chairman Michael Cardilli (2nd from left) is joined for the O'Hare Extension opening by (l to r) CTA conductor Solomon Brown, Commissioner of Public Works Jerome Butler, and CTA Executive Director Bernard Ford. For a larger view, click here. (Photo from CTA Transit News)

The success (in terms of increased ridership, at least) of the Kennedy Extension of the old Milwaukee "L" line to Jefferson Park convinced the CTA that it was worth going through with their plan to continue the line to O'Hare International Airport on the far Northwest Side of the city. The extension was undertaken in the early 1980s and opened as far as River Road (now Rosemont station) on February 27, 1983 and to its final terminus at O'Hare on September 3, 1984.

The most noticeable change between the Kennedy Extension and the O'Hare Extension are in the design of the station facilities. Whereas all three median stations on the Kennedy project were designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, were of the same basic design, and were rather basic and spartan (though considered very "modern" at the time), the four O'Hare Extension stations -- Harlem, Cumberland, River Road, and O'Hare -- were designed by a different architectural firm with an eye toward originality and spaciousness. The four stations are also spaced farther apart -- about two miles -- and all were equipped with elevators and escalators. Adjacent to the River Road station a new yard and shop were

Above: CTA Chairman Cardilli greet new customers riding the CTA's new O'Hare Extension in 1983. For a larger view, click here.

Below: Bill Nigut, WLS-TV channel 7, interviews Michael Horowitz of CTA Public Affairs/Customer Services at the River Road station at the extension's opening. For a larger view, click here.

(Photos from CTA Transit News)

built for the line to replace the facility north of Jefferson Park, which had to be demolished so the line could be extended. The 12-car Rosemont inspection shop and 260-car yard were built in a previously unused area between the ramps of the I-90/I-294/I-190 interchange. West of Rosemont Yard, the route continues in the median of the Kennedy Expressway (now Interstate 190 to O'Hare) to a short subway, which leads into the O'Hare terminal station, a three-track (the center track is for holding a reserve train) two-platform column-free facility built beneath a parking garage.

The O'Hare Line was the CTA first extension into completely new territory in more than half a century. Results were encouraging, as new office parks and retail outlets sprung up along the new rapid transit line in the Interstate 90 corridor. And those who thought only airport workers would ride the "L" to O'Hare were quickly proved wrong. Airline passengers took to the convenience, speed, and dependability of direct rapid transit service. So did workers in the corridor. In the next decade, the wisdom of this extension would be repeated at Chicago's other airport, Midway.

The CTA also continued to try and update its fleet. With advancements in PCC technology abandoned with the 1964 procurement of the High-Performance 2000-series cars from Pullman-Standard, the CTA again found itself struggling to create a 100% compatible modern fleet.

The 2400-series cars, built by Boeing-Vertol in 1976, featured smooth curved, stainless steel exteriors and contoured fiberglass front ends (a featured pioneered by the Pullman 2000s, but discarded in the Budd 2200s). These cars are notable as the first cars built for the "L" in over 50 years to have sliding instead of the blinker-type doors. This gives a wide opening more suitable for access by handicapped persons. The electrical equipment was generally the same as that of the 2200-series. The major exception to this is the use of a motor-alternator to supply 230-volt 60-hertz power for all the auxiliary motors on the car. Low-voltage DC is provided by transformers and rectifiers for the control system. Use of 60-hertz AC allows less expensive components to be employed in place costly, high-maintenance DC equipment.

In the early 1980s, with access to more federal funds as well as capital generated by the newly reformed RTA, the CTA decided the time was right to catch up in the replacement of its rapidly aging rolling stock. Initially the order for the 2600-series cars was to be for 300 cars, but it was ultimately increased to 600 (300 married-pairs ). The design was largely unchanged from the 2400s, though the exterior had a simpler, more streamlined look. The interior space was slightly increased without changing the overall design of the car. This large series of cars, the most of any one type of car with the exception of the 6000-series, still makes up a sizable portion of the CTA's rolling stock. With the completion of the order, Transit America (the name Budd had since changed to) retired from car building.



...But the CTA Continues Its Downward Spiral

Agreements, compromises, and new subsidies provided by the 1983 RTA compromise slowed the CTA's decline, but didn't reverse or even stop it. Although the CTA reduced its deficit from the $26.8 million per year of the 1970s, it only went down to $4.6 million a year in the 1980s, still a sizable amount. Fares went up -- $0.80 in early 1981, $0.90 in late 1981 (two raises in one year!), $1.00 in 1988, to $1.25 in 1990 -- driving away more riders and thus compounding the funding problem. Ridership started at 98,629,447 a year on the "L" lines at the beginning of the decade, but fell to 93,237,373 by the end of the decade, a total drop of 5%!

At the same time that ridership and revenues were falling, the CTA was failing to accordingly modify their routes and operating hours to fit new ridership patterns. For the most part, despite some more station eliminations (the most severe of which took place in two sets of cuts in 1973), the route structure remained as it did when the CTA took over in 1947. It seemed that once again, the CTA was reaching critical mass...