We Chicagoans find ourselves in an absurd situation. The demand for public transportation services is soaring. The resources exist to vastly expand services – and repair aging infrastructure – in order to fully meet that demand.
Yet we’re told that more cuts, on top of the devastating cuts pushed through in 2010, are simply unavoidable. Moreover, we’re told that we will now have to pay more for less service by accepting fare hikes. How could this be?
According to Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) officials, they’re not cutting back on transit services, they’re “decrowding.”
Crowding on buses and trains, of course, is a serious problem here in Chicago. But it is the predictable consequence of increasing ridership and decreasing service. Over the past decade, in conformity with national trends, demand for public transportation has risen steadily to the highest levels seen for more than 20 years. But despite soaring public need, in 2010 the CTA implemented large-scale reductions in service. The “L” (elevated train) was cut back and bus service was reduced by more than 20 percent, with nine bus routes eliminated entirely.
The result has been longer wait times for ever more crowded buses and trains – and that’s if you’re lucky. If you relied on any of the eliminated routes, you don’t even have the luxury of waiting longer in the cold for that crowded bus that costs more than ever.
You’d think, then, that any “decrowding” plan worthy of the name would expand service in order to meet unmet transit needs. But a modest expansion in service is only half of the CTA’s plan. The other half is yet another round of cuts – in addition to those implemented in 2010 – topped off with the elimination of 12 more bus routes. It’s a little like burning your furniture to heat the living room.
Why is public transit in Chicago withering on the vine when the public – and the planet – needs it more than ever? Why are they charging us more and more for less and less in return?
Whose Fiscal Responsibility Is It, Anyway?
One explanation we hear often blames the cuts on the CTA workers. “If it weren’t for wages, benefits and pensions of CTA workers,” the thought runs, “there wouldn’t be a need to cut service and raise fares.” But this is absurd. It makes it sound as if every financial variable is fixed in stone – e.g. government spending priorities, levels of taxation on corporations and the rich – except CTA workers’ compensation.
Thus, we read outrageous headlines like “CTA labor deal may avert fare hikes,” which encourage us to think that the only factor affecting fares is the take-home pay of the workers. This is scapegoating pure and simple. It completely ignores the broader issues at stake.
Another explanation we hear over and over again is scarcity. We’re told that times are tight and “hard decisions must be made.” Sure, goes the rhetoric, CTA cuts are regrettable, but they’re inevitable given the tough economic times we’re living in. To say otherwise is unrealistic.
Although this line of argument presents itself as realistic and prudent, it is anything but. The appeal to scarcity is, in fact, an appeal to a glaring falsehood.
It’s not as if there’s literally a physical shortage of materials, technology or labor that prevents us from expanding public transit service and modernizing infrastructure. In fact, on the labor side of things, there is an abundance of eager workers (there are tens of thousands of unemployed Chicagoans, according to recent figures) who desperately need the sorts of jobs that would be created through an expansion of public transit services.
If it isn’t physical scarcity holding us back, neither is it true that our economy simply doesn’t produce enough surplus wealth to finance an expansion of public transportation. Despite – or maybe because of – the recession, a number of US companies have posted record profits in recent years. What’s more, many of those companies pay very little, if anything, in taxes. According to Citizens for Tax Justice:
“Congress could raise $583 billion over 10 years by closing the huge loophole in the corporate income tax allowing U.S. corporations to indefinitely ‘defer’ paying U.S. taxes on profits that they generate offshore or that appear to be generated offshore because of dodgy accounting methods.” (via Elizabeth Schulte)
A little bit closer to home, let’s not forget that some of the richest and most powerful business groups in Chicago recently received hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks as well as multi-million dollar public subsidies from state and city governments. And don’t even get me started about TIFs. The idea that there just isn’t enough to go around simply doesn’t hold water when we look at the facts.
Still, politicians have a stock reply up their sleeves when you point all this out. They’ll remind us that governments – from the federal level all the way down to City Hall – are deep in the red. “We can’t kick the can down the road anymore,” says the Mayor of Chicago. Thus, public transit, like our libraries, health clinics, schools and so on, must be sacrificed on the mantle of “fiscal responsibility.” If you don’t like the sound of this, the Mayor’s response is simple: Go buy a car and drive yourself around town.
Now, this line of argument – not Rahm’s insolent “let them drive cars” remark, but the line about “fiscal responsibility” – has an air of plausibility because it is true, of course, that government budgets are in the red. But this begs the obvious question: how did these budget deficits come about? Who’s responsible for this mess? The line from above is that ordinary people “lived beyond their means” and now must pay the price. But the fact is that the deficits on the books today were caused by the actions of wealthy and powerful people who are now trying to force the rest of us to clean up the mess they made.
The economic fallout from the financial meltdown – which led to soaring unemployment, foreclosures, wage reductions, sharp declines in business investment, etc. – caused a steep drop in tax revenue which hit Illinois and Chicago budgets especially hard. On top of this, we have to keep in mind that cities like Chicago were, even before the recession, already financially vulnerable because of a decades-long trend of federal disinvestment in urban areas.
But although the federal government gave the big banks everything they wanted in their moment of need, there has been no comparable effort to come to the aid of state and city governments to forestall cutbacks to basic services. Instead we’re told to brace ourselves for a punishing round of cuts to our standard of living. This is why you’re likely to hear folks chanting “banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” at demonstrations, including those against transit cuts.
The Money Is There
When I bring all of this up with fellow frustrated CTA riders, many of them claim that the CTA has had financial troubles since time immemorial. “The CTA seems to have a financial crisis every year,” they tell me, so “the ever-looming specter of cuts is just a fact of life we have to learn to accept.” I don’t agree that deficits and cutbacks are facts of life – but I do identify with the sense of powerlessness that comes from feeling that your transportation experience is perennially subject to forces completely beyond your control.
It’s true that the CTA has suffered a great deal as the flow of resources into cities sharply declined from the 1970s onward. But the CTA’s problems aren’t unique. Public transportation in virtually every big city in the country is perennially underfunded and highly vulnerable to economic downturns and drops in tax revenue – like those caused by the financial crisis in 2008. And, like Chicago, other big cities in the US have responded to the crisis by cutting back service and raising fares.
On a nationwide scale, public spending on transportation as a percentage of GDP has declined from 3.5% in the mid-1960s to less than 1.5% today. To put that in perspective, compare those figures with the 5.7% of GDP currently spent on military ventures that the vast majority of Americans oppose. As economic journalist Doug Henwood points out:
“In 2000, we spent 3.7% of GDP on the military. The Pentagon didn’t have to hold bake sales. We’re now spending 5.4%. Merely going back to 2000 would save 1.7% of GDP, or $255 billion. If over the next decade we spent 3.7% of GDP instead of 5.4%, we’d save $3.6 trillion.”
Even a sliver of that chunk of change could pay for big infrastructure renovation projects in addition to a large fleet of new buses, trains and workers to operate them.
Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at a recent study put out by DePaul University which argues that the CTA and Metra need at least $2 billion annually for a decade in order to bring infrastructure up to a good state of repair. That’s a mere sliver of the money the government spends on a bloated, unpopular military apparatus that subsisted on a far leaner – if still relatively excessive – diet in 2000. The money is there, the problem is political priorities.
So, who’s to blame for this frustrating state of affairs?
While I disapprove of the way that the CTA opportunistically scapegoats its workers when fare hikes and service cuts come up for consideration, I’m not suggesting that we single-out CTA officials as the root of the problem. Too often discussions of the CTA go no deeper than the accounting tactics of its management or the alleged “greed” of its workers. But this misses the forest for the trees. Instead of narrowly focusing on the inner-workings of the CTA (or the Regional Transportation Authority), we need to critically examine the broader issue at stake: the politics of austerity
Austerity is a policy of balancing budgets on the backs of ordinary people by making cuts to their standard of living. Simply put, it means reducing deficits on terms that please the rich and make the rest of us worse off.
Now, we all know that the Republicans enthusiastically support cuts to our living standards, so it’s tempting to assume that we should support Democrats in order to stop them. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that a vote for a Democrat isn’t a vote against austerity at all.
After all, It’s the “bluest” states – New York, California and Illinois – that are competing for the mantle of having made the largest cuts ever to public services. President Obama has announced on several occasions that he’s more than willing to make a “grand bargain” with the Republicans and implement historic cuts to Medicare and Social Security. And can anyone really claim, while keeping a straight face, that a vote for a big-shot Democrat like Rahm Emanuel is a vote against austerity, when he’s cutting CTA services, closing schools, shutting down mental health clinics, laying off librarians and firing scores of public workers?
But if the Republicans and and Democrats are both part of the problem, what’s the solution? We can draw inspiration and insight from what ordinary people are doing in southern Europe to resist austerity. Poor and working-class Europeans, just like Chicagoans, are being forced to pay the bill for an economic crisis they didn’t cause, and there’s a lot we can learn from what they’re doing to organize and fight back.
On November 14, 2012, to take but one example, massive numbers of people in Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Portugal and elsewhere participated in historic, trans-national mass strikes and demonstrations to protest austerity. Their message was clear: “We won’t pay for a crisis caused by the 1%.” This movement is growing and there are many lessons we can learn from its strategic successes and failures.
What light does this shed on the public transportation fiasco here in Chicago? One lesson from the anti-austerity struggle in Europe is that public transit users should see CTA workers as allies – not enemies – with whom we share a common interest in fighting against cutbacks. When I’m forced to wait longer out in the cold for a crowded 36 bus this winter, for example, it won’t be because of my bus driver’s pay, benefits or pension. It will be because of backward political priorities that privilege the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the interests of the vast majority.
So, if there’s a lesson to be learned from anti-austerity movements abroad, it’s that workers can lead them by uniting people and effectively using the strike weapon. Just as CPS teachers linked their fight against the austerity agenda of City Hall to the fight for the schools our kids deserve, CTA workers could fight attacks on their livelihood alongside community members fighting against fare hikes and service cuts. The transit workers’ union could follow the lead of the teachers and make a political argument against austerity – and in favor of taxing the rich to expand service – that could serve as a basis for unity with transit users.
Riders are presently scattered and unorganized, but unionized, rank-and-file transit workers have the benefit of already being organized. They have the ability to take a lead in getting this fight off the ground by uniting with riders on the basis of common interests.
We know that the Mayor would like to divide and conquer transit users and CTA workers, just like he tried to do during the CTU strike when he attempted to pit students and parents against the teachers. But the fact remains that when transit services get cut, CTA workers and riders both lose. When our transit infrastructure goes unrepaired, life is harder for riders as well as workers.
The two groups have everything to gain from opposing austerity and standing up for a fully-funded, comprehensive transit system financed through higher taxes on the 1%. The sooner we name the problem for what it is, the sooner we can begin broad discussions about how to build the kinds of movements we’ll need to win changes.
By Tyler Zimmer
Tyler Zimmer is working on a Ph.D in Philosophy at Northwestern University. His writing has appeared recently at Jacobin and Gapers Block.