Saturday, March 17, 2007

Can't Take Anymore

Mrs. Fluffy, a friend of mine who now lives in Atlanta recently lamented that she missed the CTA.

No surprise. I often hear people from other cities (both friends and random strangers) say that it's so much easier to get around in Chicago than in (insert your city here). They have a point. The Chicago Transit Authority covers more ground than most cities and, for the most part, they've done a decent job, moving tourists and natives alike about the metropolitan area for decades. They haven't been remotely perfect--waits for buses or trains could be frustrating, but at least you had a pretty good idea you'd get where you needed to go when you needed to go there.

Lately, though, CTA has been falling down. A lot.

CTA will no doubt say that they need better funding at the state and federal levels, and no doubt that's true. Trains and buses aren't cheap. Neither is maintenance of said buses and trains. Neither is maintenance of the extensive rail system those trains ride on. They will also no doubt say that they've done a fine job with what they've been given. With that, I would respectfully--even disrespectfully--disagree. Going just on what I can see and what I experience nearly every day of the week as a rider of CTA, they don't spend what little money they receive very well.

Example: whenever I see CTA work crews, whether on the tracks or at street level, the same pattern repeats itself: four or five workers will be standing around, arms crossed, mouths flapping about the weather or the war or last night's game or whatever, while only one or two workers are actually, you know, working. (Friends of mine who frequently ride trains and buses have reported the same pattern.) CTA has claimed that they don't have enough money for maintenance crews. Perhaps they should consider smaller crews that do more--or any--work.

Another example: the federally funded Brown Line reconstruction project, which will take years to complete and cost many millions of dollars to expand or rebuild existing Brown Line stations to handle longer trains and accommodate the handicapped (most stations don't have elevators or ramps), has been mishandled from the get-go. The initial bids came in way over budget, causing CTA to scale back the designs and revise construction schedules, making it necessary to close stations for extended periods of time (rather than keep them open throughout construction, as initially promised) and cut back amenities at the reconstructed stations, like canopies that stretch the length of the stations.

Two of the stations that have reopened, Kedzie and Rockwell, are ugly, boxy, chilly things. (Quite literally chilly--there are no heat lamps on the platforms, and the ones installed inside the stationhouses are so high off the floor that only someone my height can feel any warmth at all.) If they're the shape of things to come, I don't want to see what's coming.

Even the recently reopened Francisco station, which does indeed have heat lamps on the platform, is little more than a pale imitation of the stationhouse that stood there for nearly a century--its look and feel are, most politely put, strained.

The buses don't seem to be running much better, with long waits no matter what the time of day or weather. It's not uncommon to see two, three, four buses arrive at once. Once, at the corner of Western and Addison, I saw no less than eight Western Avenue buses go past me headed north, while I waited for one westbound Addison bus to show up; after half an hour, I gave up and walked home.

On another occasion, I waited for a Western bus on the way home from Mom's house at a fairly early hour on a weekday evening. It was bitterly cold, and the temptation to take a cab was great. Still, I waited, feeling seeping away in my feet and fingers as the minutes went by and taxi after taxi approached, slowed to see if I wanted to hop in, and drove away, leaving me freezing in a bus shelter that holds back the wind as effectively as a collander holds water. After 12 cabs had rolled past me, I yielded to temptation and jumped in the 13th cab. There was still no bus in sight.

And now, CTA is telling riders that things will get worse--much worse--before they get better. Starting in April and continuing for the next two years, one track of the Red Line will be taken out of service in the high-traffic corridor between Fullerton and Belmont, both of which will have their stations reconstructed, and the Red Line trains will have to run on the tracks that serve the Brown and Purple Lines.

To be fair, both stations have needed renovation and expansion for some time. The Belmont station, in particular, is in rough shape, with narrow, dark stairways and lamp posts that, if you lean on them, tend to lean right with you. unfortunately, to clear room for these new, improved stations, the CTA had the glorious, gothic Hayes-Healy Gymnasium demolished (with the permission of the building's owner, DePaul University) at Fullerton, as well as the longtime home of Belmont Army Surplus (where I once bought a leather jacket to impress a woman who, to no one's surprised, wasn't remotely impressed) at Belmont.

The construction of these two expanded, upgraded stations will cause drastic reductions in service at rush hour (up to 25 percent) and a near doubling of commute times for the better part of two years. So CTA is encouraging its passengers to find other ways to get to work. Take buses. Ride Metra. Carpool. Crawl.

What amuses me (if anything about the situation can truly be called "amusing") is that CTA President Frank Kruesi seems to really believe that riders will flock back to the affected lines once construction is completed--two years from now.

Maybe most riders will. But speaking for myself, if I have to alter my commute so drastically that I must seriously consider taking other modes of transportation, including the possibility of buying a car and driving to work (those of you who know me, STOP LAUGHING, DAMMIT!), there's no way I'd go back. It would be like a restaurant closing for renovations and asking me to find someplace else to eat for the next two years, but urging me to come back when they reopen.

And maybe that would work--if I liked the food and the service that much to begin with.