Infrastructure & Environment

Chicago's Transit Chief

Transit Chief Richard Rodriguez combats a monumental fiscal crisis.
by | July 2010
 

To view a slideshow of Zach Patton's ride with Richard Rodriguez, click here or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Richard Rodriguez washes his hands a lot. That's because Rodriguez, who has run the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) since March 2009, has earned a reputation for picking up trash whenever he rides a bus or rail car in the city. Waiting on a subway platform or climbing the stairs to catch an "L" train, Rodriguez is constantly darting over to snatch the candy wrappers, scraps of paper and other detritus scattered on the station floor.

He's recently institutionalized his habit-senior CTA staffers now are required to spend a couple of hours each month on litter patrol at a bus terminal. And they seem to be picking up Rodriguez's crusade, grabbing bits of trash and stuffing them into their pockets or purses. "I just can't stand garbage in our system," Rodriguez says as he lobs a wad of paper into a nearby trash can. "I always tell my employees, 'Don't you think if the president of the CTA can pick up trash, you can too?'"

Rodriguez may be focused on the details, but he's simultaneously balancing many much bigger issues--and they're a lot thornier than errant candy wrappers. The CTA is emerging from the worst budget crisis of its 60-year history. Massive gaps in funding have forced sweeping layoffs and service reductions. In addition, the system--some parts of which date to the 1890s--needs billions of dollars of infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Chicago's challenges aren't unique. Transit systems nationwide face severe budget shortfalls and a massive backlog of much-needed repairs. At the same time, they're straining to serve a growing number of riders: Despite a recession-related dip in 2009, ridership across the country remains at near record-high levels. Aging "legacy" systems in Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, to name a few, contribute to an estimated $78 billion national backlog in transit maintenance needs, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Even newer systems in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., suffer from a funding system their managers say is broken and unsustainable. According to a survey from the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of the nation's transit systems have raised fares or cut service in the past year.

"There's no question that financial problems top the list of concerns for all these city transit agencies," says Robert Puentes, a national transportation expert and a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Puentes says a raft of different problems have converged to create the current crisis: deteriorating infrastructures; population growth; an aging population, which adds more pressures to transit; and funding systems that rely heavily on revenues from declining gas taxes, and volatile sales and property taxes. "There's almost nobody who's immune from these issues."

But Chicago's transit system--the country's second largest with an average 1.8 million riders every weekday--faces some of the nation's most dire challenges. It has more than $7 billion in unfunded maintenance needs. On parts of the system, for example, trains engineered to speed along at 70 mph now must slow to a 15 mph crawl because the fragile rails can't handle faster speeds. "They're going at the speed of a horse and buggy because the rails are literally eroding and coming loose from the ties," says Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, a nonpartisan, Boston-based public policy think tank. "When transit breaks down as it has in Chicago, cities lose a big part of their core."

Puentes is more blunt about the Windy City's problems: "The system in Chicago needs to be rebuilt almost from scratch."

The man charged with rescuing the CTA--or at least helping steer it through the current fiscal day of reckoning--is Rodriguez. He's something of an unlikely savior: At 39, he's never before worked in a mass transit agency. Over the past decade, however, he's skyrocketed through the Chicago government management ranks, establishing himself in the city--and more importantly, in the mind of Mayor Richard Daley--as a quintessential fix-it man.

A native Chicagoan, Rodriguez was born and raised in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the city's west side. His father immigrated from Puerto Rico; his mother, from Ecaudor. (The couple met on a CTA bus in the late 1950s.) Rodriguez stayed in Chicago through college and law school. After brief stints in the Office of the Attorney General of Guam and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the late 1990s, he returned to his hometown to start a family--and begin his rise through Chicago city government.

Over the following decade, Rodriguez held numerous positions in different municipal agencies, including overseeing a strategic-sourcing initiative for the city's public schools, and helping to manage the demolition and transformation of Chicago's infamous public-housing high rises, including Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes. Along the way, Rodriguez became one of Daley's go-to guys for managing tough projects. The mayor appointed him as executive director the city's Department of Construction and Permits, where he whittled the residential permitting process from six months down to six weeks. Daley moved him to the Department of Buildings, where Rodriguez cleaned up an agency long riddled with corruption. He then became commissioner of the city's Department of Aviation, where he oversaw the opening of an expansion at O'Hare International Airport.

Overall, Rodriguez held 10 different positions in 10 years. But he downplays his reputation as a fixer. "I see it as kind of corporate employment, just like any private corporation," he says. "I'm a part of the city of Chicago, and I like going wherever the mayor needs me to go and being able to solve a crisis."

The crisis he faces at the CTA certainly is the biggest of his career--and by far the worst in Chicago's transportation history. Upon walking into his office last March, Rodriguez was informed that the state cut $58 million from the CTA's operating budget. Then in May, the agency's funds were slashed by another $155 million--and by another $35 million in July. Rodriguez aggressively sought ways to stave off service cuts: He restructured departments and required furloughs for nonunion employees. He even cut his own salary by 10 percent.

As the CTA composed its 2010 budget last fall, however, it was clear the internal belt-tightening could only go so far. Rodriguez proposed cuts to rail service and bus routes, pulling 287 buses off the roads and laying off 1,100 CTA workers, including 1,000 union employees.

As expected, the layoff plans led to a clash with labor leaders. Rodriguez asked union workers to sacrifice vacation days or take unpaid furloughs. "The unions were not about to give concessions without getting something in return," says Robert Kelly, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents the city's rail workers. "Negotiating with him was strictly a one-way street. It's his way or there's no other way."

Stuck at an impasse, the service cuts occurred in February. For his part, Rodriguez says he gave the unions "a litany of things and said, 'Pick and choose, whatever your membership feels they can actually contribute,'" he says. "But the unions would have nothing of it."

To others, Rodriguez's management of the layoffs and service cuts was exemplary. "I hate the fact that we had to cut service," says John Paquet, the CTA vice president for planning and development. "But Rich was surgical and strategic about the whole process. We cut service on every route in the system, but we did it by looking at the data, route by route, at every half-hour increment throughout the day. When we were talking through it, Rich constantly wanted to know who would be affected by each change: If we cut this route to this neighborhood, how will that affect people on this block?"

Rodriguez enters an "L" station in Chicago's downtown Loop, on his way to announce a new station entrance opening at a Chinatown stop (a project funded with some of the $241 million in federal stimulus dollars awarded to the CTA, without which the 2009 fiscal crisis would have been even worse). As Rodriguez steps onto the platform, he's stopped by a man who's certain he recognizes Rodriguez from somewhere. "Have I seen you on TV?" Maybe, Rodriguez says. "Oh, I know! You're the CTA guy!"

When he rides the system, Rodriguez is recognized constantly--by train operators, bus drivers, janitors and citizens. The labor union clash and Rodriguez's frequent public pleas for more transit funding have made him a very familiar face. He also happens to be rather easy to pick out of a crowd, with his close-cropped beard and combed-back hair. And his natty style of dressing recalls a bygone level of formality: cuff links, monogrammed shirts and--unfailingly--a three-piece suit.

But Rodriguez's familiarity in the city also stems from the fact that he rides the trains and buses so frequently. He commutes by train two or three days a week. (He drives the other days so he can spend more time with his wife and their five young children.) On weekends, he often loads up some of his kids to ride the train. And he randomly chooses one day a week simply to ride around on the system in a given part of the city, talking to operators in the field, monitoring the conditions of vehicles and stations. "My employees hate it," he says, grinning. "They're getting e-mails from me every few minutes about, 'We need to fix this,' and, 'Why can't we clean this up?'" He pulls out his BlackBerry, which is filled with countless photos of graffiti, rust and damaged garbage cans.

Rodriguez says it's important for him and his management staff--whom he requires to ride the system at least 40 times a month--to know exactly what the CTA's needs are, as they advocate for more funding in Washington. Fixing graffiti is one thing, but Rodriguez says he's also focused just as intently on restructuring the way transit is funded in the United States. "Looking at the other legacy systems around the country--the matter in which we're all currently funded, the age of our infrastructure, the state of disrepair that we're in, the lack of investment by the federal government--it's a national crisis."

Rodriguez and his counterparts in other cities are pushing for a major influx of revenue from Washington. "If they really wanted to get us to a state of good repair, they would make a national investment similar to the way there's been an investment in high-speed rail, the way there's been investment in the banking industry and the automobile industry."

He has reason to hope. As he alights from the train at the Chinatown station, Rodriguez pulls up his BlackBerry and sees news that the Federal Transit Administration is seeking comment on how to better evaluate massive investments in transit projects. Looking at transit's impact on economic development and the environment would mark a decided shift in the way Washington doles out funds. Rodriguez excitedly holds out his phone: "See? Somebody's starting to listen. In the past, it's all been just about the number of people you move from one place to another every day," he says. "But mass transit has so much more value than that. We've got to get to a point where we recognize that."

For more information about pictures in this Flickr slideshow, click on the individual picture.

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