» Class-action suit claims regional transit dollars unfairly support Metra commuter rail travel over CTA’s local service.
Two Chicago commuters have sued the State of Illinois in federal court, claiming that regional funding has systematically under-funded inner-city bus and L train service for the benefit of suburban train lines, therefore denying equal transportation access to the region’s minority populations and violating federal and state law. The suit raises questions of metropolitan area equity and distribution of funding between suburban and urban populations.
The premise of the riders’ complaint is clear: the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus and train services, operating mostly within the City of Chicago, serve something close to 80% of the region’s transit users, but the Metra commuter rail system, reaching far out into the suburbs, receives almost 30% of overall operating funds distributed by the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which controls overall spending in the Chicago region. This is unfair and in violation of civil rights laws, they argue, since the areas served by Metra are predominantly white whereas those in CTA’s operating zone are mostly inhabited by minorities. U.S. House member Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) has come out in support of the suit.
Pace, a suburban bus line, receives about 15% of RTA’s operating funds and serves about 7% of customers, but it is not accused of being overfunded by the plaintiffs in this suit. The RTA does not keep statistics on the racial or ethnicity of its ridership, but it seems likely that Metra’s users are far more white than those of the CTA, since suburban Chicago is mostly white whereas the city itself is only about 31% non-hispanic white. The agency has no comments on the suit.
It is clear that CTA is underfunded, as declining sales tax revenues will force it to lay off some 1,000 employees and reduce bus service by 18% in the coming year unless unions are willing to accept lower compensation. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has said that there is “an attitude toward the CTA” that has resulted in lower-than-necessary funding. Yet whether those financial problems are related to a policy that “grossly and disparately favored white mass-transit riders… by over-funding Metra” is another question.
Per passenger, it is quite clear that Metra receives more operating funding than the CTA. In 2008, the CTA provided rides to some 1.6 million daily users, compared to only 320,000 at Metra. But the first agency only had twice the overall annual expenses of the latter ($1.6 billion versus $815 million).
But when considered in terms of mileage, the discrepancy is far less clear. Metra’s average rider trip is 22.6 miles long; the Chicago L’s most-used service, the Red Line, is only 23.4 miles long, with most users traveling far less than the whole route. In other words, commuter rail users are moving larger distances than their local bus and L counterparts, meaning that Metra’s per-passenger mile costs are probably lower than those of CTA.
Meanwhile, Metra rider fares cover about the same operations costs — around 31% — as those of CTA, at 30%, meaning that RTA is subsidizing the two services relatively similarly.
Finally, only 30% of sales tax revenues, which provide the primary source of local income for the RTA, come from the City of Chicago, with 70% coming from outlying areas. In other words, from the perspective of the regional population, far more money is being redistributed from the suburbs towards the inner-city, not vice verse.
From these perspectives, CTA doesn’t appear to be dramatically underfunded compared to Metra, and the case that there is a racial component to the decision-making that led to the lower per-passenger spending on CTA is on shaky ground. The plaintiffs in this suit have a lot more to prove before they can claim to have been systematically disenfranchised by RTA policy.
Even so, you never know. The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union successfully sued Metro, resulting in a 1996 decision that required a huge expansion of bus service at the expense of increased capital spending on rail projects, because the areas to be served by rail had a higher percentage of white inhabitants than those with bus operations. Chicago could see a similar a similar ruling in its case and be required to transfer operations dollars from Metra to the CTA.
It could also be argued that per-passenger spending is more important than per-passenger mile spending, since the former encourages urban lifestyles, which require shorter commutes than the longer distances that have to be traveled by commuter rail riders. But a preference for inner-city rail and bus over region-wide commuter operations is more a reflection of metropolitan planning priorities than a tool for racial discrimination. (Though, admittedly, one could contend that those priorities are in essence government-enforced mechanisms to structure race-based differences in spending.)
There are ways to compromise, however. Chicago would benefit from a merger between its Metra, CTA, and Pace divisions, allowing commuters to transfer between lines without paying separate fares. RTA could make an effort to convert some of its Metra commuter lines into rapid transit corridors with better, more frequent service to the inner-city neighborhoods through which they pass on the way to the suburbs. Doing so would leverage existing rail resources at a relatively inexpensive cost, prevent a fight between suburban and city officials, and eliminate feelings of racism.
Images above: Ridership and funding statistics, from RTA