By La Risa Lynch of the Austin Weekly News
A sparsely attended public hearing earlier this week on the Chicago Transit Authority’s 2011 budget ended 20 minutes after it started.
For Austin resident Pat Chambliss, though, that was enough time to get answers from CTA officials about her concerns. Chambliss was one of four people who spoke at Tuesday night’s hearing held at the Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St.
Chambliss expressed concerns about bus bunching and the placement of bus stops. She suffers from a neuro-muscular disease that makes it difficult to walk to bus stops spaced too far apart.
“Places where I normally catch the bus, I’ve got to walk an extra half block to catch the bus … because the stop has been eliminated altogether,” Chambliss said. “In some places, they don’t have shelters and benches.”
Panel members, who included CTA board Chair Terry Peterson, didn’t answer her questions directly, but CTA customer service agents provided Chambliss with numbers to call for further assistance.
“I did get some satisfactions,” she said. “It wasn’t overwhelming, but something is better than nothing.”
CTA riders may also be satisfied with the transit agency’s proposed 2011 budget. CTA officials said there would be no fare increases or elimination of routes in its proposed $1.337 billion budget.
CTA President Richard L. Rodriguez said the agency’s goal is to improve services, which were cut by 18 percent early this year. Whether those routes are restored depends on funding and the economy, he added.
“As the economy begins to grow and the public funding becomes available, we will have the ability to put more services on the street,” he said.
When asked about free rides for senior citizens, Rodriguez said that’s up to state legislators. However, he stressed the financial strain free rides put on the agency.
“The state determines who we give free rides to, so we follow their lead,” Rodriguez said. “Our job is to make sure that everyone understands how much it is costing us to provide free rides, and it is not just senior free rides, because we provide other types of free rides as well.
“Our job is to tell everybody, ‘This is revenue that we would have received but for the fact that these individuals are riding for free,” he added. “We don’t take a position on whether it is something that we support or don’t support. That is something that has to be taken up at the state level.”
Ald. Ed Smith, who came after the meeting ended, would like to see senior free rides remain, but he noted CTA needs money. The city currently provides only $3 million to the agency.
“We would love to do more, but the money is just not there,” Smith said.
The proposed budget is 5.2 percent or $66.7 million more than last year’s budget. Union wage increases, pension and health care obligations account for the increase, according to a CTA press release.
The budget includes capital improvements such as the first order of new rail cars in more than 15 years. Other planned improvements include overhauling buses, rehabilitating bus garages and rail stations, upgrading substations, and replacing tracks to eliminate and prevent slow zones.
Austin resident Quentin Berkley said additional rail cars are needed, especially on the Green and Pink lines during rush hour. The lack of rail cars causes congestion, forcing Berkley to sometimes wait for a less crowded train.
He said the Green and Pink lines, which have six and four rail cars respectively, need at least eight to accommodate riders, especially doing the upcoming holiday shopping season.
“If I have to go to North Riverside Mall to do some shopping, it is congested on the Pink Line. If I go to visit my relatives on the South Side, it is congested on the Green Line,” he said.
Berkley wants CTA to add more rail cars to those lines as well as upgrade trains.
CTA officials said the agency has been testing 10 new rail cars on each rail line for the last few months. CTA has ordered 406 new rail cars that would replace about one-third of CTA’s rail fleet.
“We are testing them out, making sure they can operate in the snow and can operate well in the summer,” Rodriguez explained. “When we are satisfied that those cars are working the way we want them to work, then we will be able to place the order.”
Another public comment meeting on CTA’s budget will take place at 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at CTA headquarters, 567 W. Lake St.