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Transit 'report card' finds Chicago commuters don't have it as bad as other areas

Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 11:35 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Although commuters are rolling along in some of the oldest train cars in the country, Chicago's mass transit system is equal to or better than other big cities in cost-effectiveness and reliability, a transportation "report card" shows.

Despite antiquated equipment — 26 percent of the CTA and Metra rail fleet is running on borrowed time — the region's transit network placed well in almost all categories of performance.

The system also showed "significant positive improvement" for efficiency, according to a recently conducted review of federal transit data by the Regional Transportation Authority.

The results are likely to be either heartening or surprising for many riders who complain about subpar service and delays due to old or broken equipment. Compared with other cities, Chicago doesn't have it so bad, the report suggests.

"I have to give (the CTA and Metra) credit. They are keeping the clunkers running," said Steve Schlickman, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former executive director of the RTA.

"To me what reflects performance is ridership," Schlickman said. "If the CTA, Metra or Pace was so bad, their ridership would be falling off. It's not. Even after the CTA service cuts (in 2010), we hardly lost any ridership."

The data compared Chicago's regional transportation system with systems in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Here are a few other comparisons based on the data:

•In big-ticket equipment and infrastructure expenditures, the Chicago region is slipping, an alarm that transit officials have been sounding for years.

•The Chicago region ranked fifth out of the 10 urban areas in operating cost per passenger trip at $3.30 per trip. At the top of the list was New York, at $2.48; the worst was Dallas, at $7.26.

•The system performed the best of all 10 urban areas in reliability of service, even though its equipment ranked second from last in terms of age.

The RTA conducted the review, called the Regional Peer Report Card, based on transit agencies' reports to the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database. The RTA is required to scrutinize the performance of the CTA, Metra and Pace.

The report card is intended as a benchmark so the RTA and the transit agencies can measure how they perform in comparison with their peers and against themselves, said Grace Gallucci, the RTA's deputy executive director for research and policy.

"What this tells the public is, we're paying attention to what makes our transit system work well and seeing how our system can improve," Gallucci said. "It's sort of like bringing home a good report card to your parents. We didn't get all A's, but it shows we're looking out for (the riders)."

Although the report was prepared by the RTA and often reflected favorably on Chicago, the numbers weren't skewed to achieve that result, Gallucci said.

The report doesn't include comparable data for on-time performance.

Joseph Schofer, a transportation expert at Northwestern University, said the database provides an important way of gauging how transit systems perform and how they can improve service.

"I think it's important to step back and say: 'Here's where we are in the pack. Is there an explanation for it?'" Schofer said.

The analysis is based on 2010 data, the latest available, and does not reflect more recent events such as CTA and Pace service reductions that year and Metra fare hikes that went into effect Feb. 1.

The data showed that, on average, the region's transit equipment operated 26,000 miles between breakdowns, far above the next-ranked area, Washington, at 20,000 miles. This was despite the region having 26 percent of its equipment considered beyond its useful life.

Only Philadelphia has older equipment, with 34 percent considered beyond its useful life. In Dallas, by contrast, the figure is 4 percent.

The Federal Transit Administration puts the useful life for buses at 12 years and 25 years for rail cars.

The report reinforces what transit officials and experts have warned for years: Chicago's transit infrastructure is underfunded. The RTA estimates that more than $24 billion is needed to get the system in a state of good repair over the next 10 years: $15 billion for the CTA, $7.4 billion for Metra and $2.3 billion for Pace.

Besides comparing Chicago's mass transit system as a whole with other cities, the RTA also compared the CTA, Metra and Pace individually with peer bus and commuter rail agencies in comparable cities.

Here are some of the highlights from that survey: 

CTA

Overall, the CTA performed well in comparison to its peer agencies, the report concluded.

These agencies included Los Angeles' Metro, Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia and Washington's Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

CTA bus operations ranked above the peer average on 10 of 11 measures.

CTA rail ranked No. 1 for lowest operating cost per vehicle revenue hour, and it outperformed the peer average for miles between major mechanical failures, despite having the oldest rail fleet.

Although significant money was spent keeping old trains in good repair — combined capital and operating expenses averaged $575,000 per rail car — it paled when compared with other transit agencies with similar yearly ridership and annual vehicle miles, CTA officials said.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority spent approximately $1.1 million per rail car over the same period, CTA officials noted.

"The CTA continues to address daily maintenance at the same level as in previous years,'' CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. "We are not deferring maintenance, but we're finding ways to use the dollars we have available in the most productive ways possible."

CTA rail underperformed its peer agencies in the service coverage area, likely because CTA rail cars hold fewer passengers than the larger trains operated by other agencies.

The report pointed out that CTA runs more trains with excess capacity during non-peak hours.

Metra

Metra performed better than the average of its peer commuter rail lines for service efficiency and effectiveness, and equal to them for miles between major breakdowns, despite having the second-oldest fleet, the report card found.

The report compared Metra with the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad in New York and Connecticut, New Jersey Transit, Boston's Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia (SEPTA).

Only SEPTA, whose rail cars average 34.8 years, has an older fleet than Metra's, at 27.9 years.

"If you purchase the right equipment and take care of it, the equipment will last many, many years," said Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford.

Pace

Pace ranked first in its class in the areas of service efficiency and effectiveness, and was also best of six peer agencies in two measures of operating cost.

But Pace was below par in service coverage — the number of passenger trips provided per hour and per mile — because of the sprawling suburban area it serves and its relatively low population density, the report noted.

The report compares Pace suburban bus service against operators in Oakland, Anaheim and San Mateo County in California; suburban Detroit; and Long Island

"The metropolitan Chicagoland population density, the lowest of its peers, has negatively influenced Pace's service coverage measures, and will continue to do so in the future," the report said.

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