May 5th, 2021
BOTTOM LINE: CHICAGO NEEDS A DIFFERENT AND CHEAPER TRANSIT SYSTEM
Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole concludes his presentation of his study on Chicago transit, with his recommendations for replacing the system at lower cost.
Chicago is well-known for its “L” systems and Metra system, which are expensive rail systems. To rehabilitate them would cost $36 billion. That would extend their life for 30 more years, but the question is: would people still be riding these systems for 30 more years?
In just 4 years, ridership in Chicago has declined about 9 percent. CTA has declined 9 percent, Metra 8 percent, and PACE about 13 percent. This decline is going to continue, especially in the next 5 to 10 years, as we will see widespread use of driverless ride-hailing. When that happens, transit ridership will plummet.
We don’t want to spend this huge amount of money on a form of transportation that will be around for 30 more years, stuck with maintaining this infrastructure, when people won’t be riding it for 30 years.
We need to replace rail transit, which is really obsolete, with that “new technology,” busses. Busses are cheap, they share infrastructure with other vehicles, and bus routes can be adjusted to meet demand.
In 1927, an Indiana company called Twin Coach developed the first bus that was cheaper to operate and cheaper to buy than rail cars. Within 10 years, more than 600 cities converted their street cars to busses.
One person who understood the value of busses was Ralph Budd, who up until 1949 was the president of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad. When he retired in 1949, the Illinois governor made him chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority, which has just been created and which had just purchased hundreds of street cars. His financial analysis showed that the streetcars cost a lot of money to operate, weren’t filling all the seats, and needed to be replaced with something cheaper.
Between 1949 and 1956 all the street car lines were converted to busses, He even converted some of the elevated rail lines to busses.
The current 3200 series CTA rail cars can hold about 90 people, sitting and standing. On average, the system can move about 23,000 people an hour. The 5000 series cars have fewer seats and more standing room, and can move about 30,000 people an hour. That’s nothing compared with what we can do with busses.
If one needs to move a lot of people into a downtown area, busses can do it better, faster and for a lot less money than trains.
A 2014 study by O’Toole for the Cato Institute showed that almost just 4 bus lines into Chicago could probably move all the people who now take the CTA and Metra trains.
Bottom line: Busses are the way to go. They are cheaper, and can be paid more out of user fees and rely less on taxes than with rail lines. Stop diverting gasoline taxes to transit lines and update the transit system in Chicago to use busses, which cost a lot less money.