CTA OKs 25-cent fare hikes as watchdog group gives thumbs down to budget

The CTA board on Wednesday unanimously approved raising bus and train fares by 25 cents next year, following the region's two other transit agencies, which also hiked their prices in response to state budget cuts.

The 2018 fare increase — the first across-the-board increase in nine years — is intended to help fill a more than $33 million hole caused, in part, by a drop in state funding for the transit service, which provides about 1.6 million rides every weekday.

Metra, the commuter rail system, and Pace, the suburban bus service, are being hit by the same drop in funding and have already approved fare hikes that kick in next year.

The CTA's fare increases mean the cost of a single fare bus ride on a Ventra card would go from $2 to $2.25 and "L" and cash bus fares would go from $2.25 to $2.50. It also increases the cost of 30-day passes by $5, from $100 to $105.

Before CTA President Dorval Carter has stressed that there would be no service cuts, which he said are more painful to riders than fare hikes, and that he does not expect to have to raise fares again in 2019.

The fare hikes were part of the transit agency’s $1.5 billion budget, which the board passed in a 6-0 vote Wednesday. The Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group, opposes the transit agency’s spending plan — wary of the CTA’s “overly optimistic” projections of restored funding from the state and its use of short-term borrowing for expenses to close a shortfall from this year.

“The CTA faces serious challenges, some of which are the result of inaction at the State and regional levels and others that are from outside forces, including historically low gas prices and increased ride-share popularity,” Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said in a statement. “However, by failing to face its economic reality in the present, the CTA is at risk for ever-greater financial problems in the future.”

In response to the Civic Federation criticism, CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the short-term borrowing is a one-time effort to address the impact of the portion of state funding cuts CTA had to absorb halfway through 2017.

In saying the CTA was too optimistic about state funding, the federation pointed to $14 million the CTA hoped to get from the state as reimbursement for free and reduced-fare rides, even though it has not gotten the expected amount for the rides for two years.

Steele said that the state has historically pledged about $28 million in reimbursement for free and reduced-fare rides, and that over the past few years it has provided just half that amount. But Steele said the agency is continuing to seek the full $28 million, and that it needs to continue to encourage Illinois to provide funding for these state-mandated rides.

Charles Paidock, secretary of the transit riders' advocacy group Citizens Taking Action, said the state budget cuts were not an emergency that justified a fare increase, and that the hike will only add to the CTA's problems of shrinking ridership.

"Given that a fare increase generally results in reduced ridership, raising fares is not what one wants to do at this time," Paidock said in a statement. "It will only augment the problem."

Paidock said the CTA should be increasing service to attract new riders.

Final approval of the hike is now in the hands of the Regional Transportation Authority, a state oversight organization, which meets Thursday. If OK’d, the fare increases would take effect Jan. 7.

The CTA last increased its base fares in 2009, when the price of a bus trip rose from $1.75 to $2 and an "L" ride from $2 to $2.25. The agency raised the price of passes in 2013. Those who qualify for reduced fares, including seniors and those with disabilities, would also see fares rise next year under the proposal.

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Twitter @marywizchicago

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