OP-EDS

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November 23, 2010

A creative train of thought

Renaming CTA lines and stops could help the city’s budget crisis

Harold’s Garfield is next. Doors open on the right at Harold’s Garfield.

Fried chicken lovers’ fantasy, meet the City budget.

On November 10, CTA president Richard Rodriguez announced that his agency would be soliciting naming rights to, well, basically everything it owns, including train lines and stations, bus routes, special events, the works.

When I first read that, I laughed. Oh, Chicago. You would.

If it actually happens, there’s no telling how dumb the names will turn out to be. The Tropicana Orange Line. The BP Green Line. The Victoria’s Secret Pink Line. And who’s going to be able to give the Brown Line a serious name?

But, tradition be damned, this is one of the only prudent financial moves the City has made in a long time, because it will probably mean better maintenance and upkeep for the El stations, comes at no cost to the public, and provides some important nutrients to an emaciated budget.

Here are the facts: When Mayor Richard Daley’s budget passed through the City Council last week nearly untouched, it featured a deficit of almost $655 million. In another year (see: non-election), the City probably would have considered making budget cuts to make up the difference. Or maybe in another economy. Or in an alternate dimension, or something.

Instead, it’s the Year of the One-Time Fix in Chicago. Daley’s budget burns through almost $40 million in tax increment financing funds that were meant to go toward economic development along with almost all of what’s left from the City’s 75-year lease of the parking meter system.

When Inspector General Joseph Ferguson came before the City Council with a list of possible fixes to the budget in late October, the response was less than friendly. For example, Alderman Ed Smith of the 28th Ward responded by saying, “If the inspector general would just go out and do his job, I think he would have enough on his hands without coming over and trying to, in effect, develop a budget that is going to work for the city of Chicago. I think to try to usurp the mayor and the City Council is completely off-base.”

Alderman Smith was definitely right that Ferguson is more than busy without having to think about the budget. But if Ferguson and other watchdogs didn’t involve themselves in the process, the City Council would keep passing budgets like chickens with their heads cut off. And trust me, chickens are the least fiscally responsible of all headless animals.

With the politically cowardly City Council we have, long-term fixes are tough to come by. While restructuring the horribly inefficient garbage collection system would be smart (like Ferguson suggested in his IG report), it would also mean fewer patronage jobs for City Hall. While changes to senior benefits like free transit would make sense financially, it would probably mean fewer votes from that demographic in the February elections.

And if you’re against the corporatization of the Second City, consider the last significant change that the City made to inject some new cash into its budget: Back in 2008, Mayor Daley shoved a 75-year, $1.15-billion parking meter lease through City Council, supposedly to protect the City’s services. Two years later, less than $100 million remains, and the company who owns our parking meters is talking about selling the system for over $10 billion. Those are the kinds of “fixes” this city usually finds.

Now, we have a deal that looks silly on the surface but is ultimately a smart move by the City. Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business put it like this: “If there’s an equivalent to free money in the transportation business, this is it.”

When Rodriguez rolled out the plan two weeks back, he talked about creativity in finding a way to make the most of this plan; that’s what caught my eye. In an economy like this, solutions are going to have to be creative, and too many of Chicago’s elected officials are leaving their thinking caps at home when it comes to developing new financial models.

So even if a Target Red line seems ridiculous, at least it’s on the right track when it comes to fixing Chicago’s budget issues.

Jake Grubman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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