Inching toward a transit deal
Monday, July 02, 2007
If lawmakers come through with hundreds of millions in new funding and approve a plan to help the Chicago Transit Authority rescue its employee retirement funds, CTA workers say they are ready to sign off on a contract that requires them to pay more for their pensions and health-care benefits. They would retire later, contribute more while they are working and lose what amounts to virtually free postretirement health coverage. They also would surrender the right to collective bargaining on future pension changes.
Two weeks after dropping (then withdrawing) dark hints about a transit strike during Taste of Chicago, Darrell Jefferson, president of the bus drivers union, said the deal was one "we can and must live with." Mayor Richard Daley went so far as to call it "historic."
It is indeed a happy day when the CTA's unions acknowledge that letting go of their overgenerous benefits is key to the long-term viability of the transit system. It strengthens the CTA's case in Springfield, where lawmakers so far have been lukewarm to calls for more transit money.
But it's a stretch for Daley to claim that the deal "shows the CTA and its employees are doing all they can to hold down costs and to make sure that customers, taxpayers and state legislators are getting their money's worth."
For too long, lawmakers have felt justified in refusing the CTA's pleas for adequate funding because it's so easy to blame the problem on wasteful spending, much of it due to the dysfunctional marriage of intransigent labor and spineless management. Why, for example, should taxpayers give more money to the CTA when the agency loses $46 million a year to absenteeism? Year after year, the unions have refused to yield on cost-saving measures such as privatization of services or elimination of workplace rules that result in unnecessary payroll costs. The tentative contract wouldn't fix those problems, and in fact assures that they won't be on the table for another five years. New CTA President Ron Huberman says he will continue to make cuts, find efficiencies and eliminate waste. Lawmakers must hold him to that promise.
One way to do so is to approve a plan sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) to overhaul the Regional Transportation Authority, giving it a stronger hand in planning and oversight of the CTA, Metra and Pace. The same bill includes a plan to provide a long-term funding stream for mass transit. The need for more money was firmly established by an Illinois auditor general's report in March, and the transit agencies are forecasting fare increases, service cuts and general rush-hour mayhem if the legislature doesn't act. They are not blowing smoke.
Most lawmakers, though, have been snoring through this crisis because it feels like a rerun of the one before, and the one before that. If things play out as usual, they will spring to life at the last minute and approve another "one-time" bailout, ensuring another rerun.
What's different this year is that there are serious reforms on the table alongside the annual request for more millions. Lawmakers have a real opportunity to put the region's troubled transit system back on track. It's time to wake up and deal with it.
Copyright (c) 2007, Chicago Tribune