Chicago and the M.T.A. Mess

A transit system in crisis, facing daunting budget gaps; a Democratic-controlled legislature can’t agree on a rescue package; an unpopular Democratic governor can’t broker a deal; an angry public facing crippling service cuts and tremendous fare hikes loom.

This all sound familiar?

Not so long ago, the country’s second largest transit system went through a high-profile budget crisis of its own, and waited—and waited and waited—on a legislature that couldn’t find its way to agreement on a rescue package. If the crisis and accompanying political debate in Chicago can be taken as any guide, New York—where legislators are now on break after finishing the budget but failing to agree on a rescue plan before the M.T.A. has its own doomsday service cuts and fare hikes—might have quite a while more of back and forth before the M.T.A.’s fiscal crisis comes to any sort of resolution.

Back in the spring and summer of 2007, the Chicago Transit Authority announced it was desperately short of revenue as pension and other costs skyrocketed past revenues. The Legislature took no direct action at the time, so drastic service cuts, including eliminating 63 bus routes, were scheduled to go into effect in September 2007, coupled with a shocking fare hike for subway (or “El”) riders. Fares were slated to jump from $2 to $3.25 during rush hour. Ads on the subways posted the bus routes that were to be cut, a lengthy list that, at a glance, made clear the severity of the situation.

(The M.T.A. and New York Legislature are currently at this point, awaiting fare hikes that are scheduled to start May 31, and service cuts that start in June.)

For Chicago, the drama was then drawn out for months by the Illinois Legislature and now-disgraced-but-then-unpopular governor Rod Blagojevich. While numerous concepts were floated and the Assembly put forward a bill, neither the two legislative chambers—both controlled by Democrats—nor Mr. Blagojevich, also a Democrat, could reach a deal.

A stop-gap measure was approved days before the fare hikes were set to go into effect in mid-September, extending the deadline to November. Then, again, another stop-gap measure came, this time extending the deadline to January.

Only then, after the CTA reportedly spent more than $2 million gearing up for the various rounds of fare hikes, did the Legislature reach a deal to fund the agency, adding a sales tax for the Chicago metro area and a real estate transfer tax. Crisis averted.

In New York, Governor Paterson has sought to avoid stop-gap measures, resisting a short-term solution by the State Senate that pushed off many decisions to the fall. Still, despite a whole lot of talking, it doesn’t seem like the Democratic Senate is close to a deal that would satisfy its own members, the governor and the Assembly.

The lesson? Don’t be surprised if this stretches out past May 31. That, and everything can work out in the end.

With that said, a drawn-out series of stop-gap measures ultimately followed by a deal would create a fair amount of logistical problems at the M.T.A., as the agency does things like sell transit passes a month in advance at new prices, which, if there were a last-minute change, would create some clear problems for those who bought the passes. That’s not to mention the loss of faith the elected officials in Albany will earn from the public and the embarassment the governor and legislative leaders suffer from not reaching a deal despite repeatedly saying one is near.