As Chicago's transit chief, Ron Huberman is playing some dangerous games. He may not have much choice
Ron Huberman knows how to build suspense. In May, not long after he took over as president of the Chicago Transit Authority, he announced that by September, without an infusion of state cash, his agency would have to carry through on a "doomsday" plan of service cuts and fare increases. It was the first step in a complex bid to put the CTA on firmer fiscal ground.
This is hardly the first such threat from the sprawling transit agency, which serves 1.5 million riders per day. Perennially short of funds, it was forced to make extensive service cuts a decade ago when no help was forthcoming; at regular intervals since then, it has announced a whole series of fare increases and service reductions, avoiding some through state bailouts and carrying through on others. Huberman's doomsday plan calls for suspending service on 63 bus routes and two rail lines, raising fares to as much as $3.25 on trains during peak hours, and cutting hundreds of jobs. "I'm pretty scared about what would happen if the funding doesn't come through," he says. "By our most conservative estimates, we would lose 230,000 of our riders each day."
If Huberman has an overriding goal, however, it is to put an end to such yearly brinksmanship by reshaping the CTA and its relationship with the state government in Springfield. At the relatively tender age of 35, he already has one similarly demanding experience under his belt, as Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff, a post he took over in 2005, when a federal corruption investigation was producing allegations about city hall hiring practices and Daley was pushing to make city government more efficient. This year, when it became clear that the CTA's longtime chief, Frank Kruesi, "couldn't sell snow cones in Springfield on a 100-degree day," as a Chicago Tribune editorial put it, Huberman seemed a logical replacement.
In truth, the "doomsday" plan was just his opening gambit--he went on to cut $12.5 million out of the CTA's budget in a bid to show he was serious about change. He reshaped the agency's pension system and renegotiated health benefits with the transit unions--requiring more contributions out of transit workers' paychecks. "It was unprecedented for the CTA to make such major changes in health care and benefits, and have it go so quickly," says Joe DiJohn, who directs the Metropolitan Transportation Support Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Having demonstrated he is serious about management reforms, Huberman has shifted his attention to the legislature, where a complicated package involving the CTA's parent agency, the Regional Transit Authority, spent the summer moving slowly forward. The legislation would impose a quarter-cent sales tax across the RTA service area and also allow Chicago to impose a real estate transfer tax to boost CTA funding and end the yearly pilgrimage to Springfield. The sales-tax provisions have drawn a veto threat from Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
"If we were a private-sector institution," says Huberman, "the only responsible thing to do would be to declare bankruptcy and reorganize under bankruptcy protection." In this case, he says, "that's simply not an option."