We find out the truth about why the CTA is going to have to cut service: sweetheart deals that don't make financial sense. Like cell phone towers for subways (which is not even half of the existing train stations - most are actually above ground, and don't need special cell phone towers)
And is it really that important to be able to make phone calls at every second of every day?
“What's more important?” reader Todd Ganz said. “Cell phone service underground in the CTA subways, or no train service at all?”
“I must say that I, too, am amused with the Chicago Transit Authority and its budget woes,” said Ganz, of the Lakeview neighborhood. “Didn't the CTA spend $11.2 million last year on a system so that you could chat on your cell phones when the trains went underground? When you're talking about an $82 million deficit, wouldn't you cut something like that?!?”
Many reasonable people would, along with slashing the CTA travel budget for employees--just for starters. But then the transit funding crisis that CTA president Frank Kruesi has been hollering about would shrink.
The CTA board approved the $11.2 million construction contract in March 2003 to wire the Red and Blue Line subways for cell phone service.
Riders may recall being inconvenienced by the string of temporary subway station closings on weekends for more than a year while cable was installed to carry cell phone signals above ground. Was it worth it?
Now, almost two years later, it's still anybody's guess how soon riders in tunnels will be able to shout into their cell phones above the squeal of train wheels.
But what the heck! CTA service may be severely reduced July 1 because of the growing CTA deficit, so there might not be much opportunity anyway for riders to talk on cell phones in the subway, on elevated trains or on buses.
The CTA is still installing the cell phone infrastructure in the subways, according to transit agency spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney.
The next step is seeking proposals from wireless service providers to see if they want to offer cellular service in CTA subways to their customers.
When will the service begin? The CTA doesn't know.
“The timing will depend on what providers respond and how long it takes to work out agreements with each of them,” Gaffney said.
Instead of the CTA incurring the $11.2 million in installation costs, the transit agency had explored the option of asking wireless companies to do the work as part of contracts to provide cell phone service.
The CTA failed to attract any bidders, however, which should have been a warning sign. But the agency's board voted to hire a Libertyville firm to install the cell phone cable, which sits unused.
It's sort of like throwing money down a dark hole, isn't it? Do you remember Kruesi saying, repeatedly, that it would be irresponsible for the agency to convert CTA capital funds to the 2005 operating budget to keep transit service going, because essential CTA infrastructure projects would be delayed?
Here's an $11.2 million project that is already late. Kruesi predicted in 2003 that subway riders would be gabbing on their cell phones by the end of 2004. And CTA officials defend the investment. They say part of the work involves increasing the coverage of CTA emergency radios, even though the communications system between the CTA and police and fire personnel already works in the subway tunnel.
Meanwhile, CTA service cuts that were set for January have been delayed until July, when even deeper service cuts will be needed to balance the books unless the General Assembly increases CTA funding.
The CTA, unfortunately, is taking after another troubled agency, the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA for years bit off more wiz-bang, high-tech projects than it could handle successfully, while not paying enough attention to the basics that affected airline passenger service. The result was failed projects, billions of dollars wasted and air-traffic services that didn't meet demand. Today, the FAA is more focused on attaining just a few major goals each year, and the outcome has improved.
It's a lesson the CTA has not yet learned, raising questions why the agency should be given more money to burn through.