October 15 2004 -- Two hundred angry Chicago Transit Authority riders showed up to Roberto Clemente High School Thursday night for the first of four public hearings the CTA is holding this month, in light of their proposed service cuts and fare increases.
From 6:30 to 9 p.m. riders used their allotted three minutes each to speak out against CTA plans. CTA President Frank Kruesi and 5 other board members were present, as well as about 30 Chicago police officers, throughout the auditorium.
Earlier this month the CTA board released two possible budgets for 2005. One includes extra money coming in from the state to close the $77 million budget deficit. The other proposes service cuts of up to 20%. Both budgets include doubling paratransit fares for the disabled from $1.75 to $3.50, raising U-Pass rates for students by 10 cents a day and parking rates by 25 cents to $3.00.
Kruesi has asked upset riders to protest in Springfield, claiming this is the only possible way to avoid service cuts. Community groups, many of which have been targeting the CTA since 1997 when Kruesi cut services by 10%, were skeptical of the CTA's sudden interest in their demands, after having been ignored for years. It was pointed out that money from Springfield does not have strings attached and there is nothing binding the CTA to use it to prevent service cuts once it is received. One speaker reminded the audience that $20 million was given to the CTA from Illinois First to restore service cut seven years ago, which remains out of service to this day. Representatives from the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, as well as others, pointed out numerous examples of mismanaged CTA funds in the wake of a budget crisis. These included building new offices on Lake Street at the cost of $119 million, increasing the pensions of board members and billion dollar plans to build a new Circle line, benefiting the rich. One former CTA employee also made reference to years of corruption and padded pay checks for CTA management.
As the evening progressed, audience members became increasingly frustrated with the CTA officials' blank stares and almost complete silence in response to questions and comments, aside from whispers to each other and Kruesi's random giggling fits. Their silence continued despite growing anger and rowdiness from the crowd shouting for answers to questions, such as how much Kruesi and other board members are paid. One woman asked for a show of hands to see who in the room lived in the city. Not one CTA official raised their hand, nor again when the room was asked how many people used CTA service at least 4 days a week.
Many speakers turned their backs on CTA officials and used the opportunity to address the crowd. Calls were made to organize other ways to put pressure on the CTA and stop service cuts. Audience members cheered at the idea of a fare strike, suggested in a flyer passed out by Midwest Unrest.
By the end of the hearing, the room was united in it's heckling of the charade put on by the CTA. Alliances were made between riders and it became clear that while the next 3 hearings are expected to be just as futile in respect to constructive dialogue with CTA officials, they will be an ideal opportunity for angry riders to meet up and start organizing together.
The next public hearing will be Tuesday, October 19 (6:30 p.m.) at The Chicago State University's Jacoby Dickens Athletic Center (9501 South King Drive). There will be one more hearing regarding service cuts on Monday, October 26 (6:30 p.m.) in the Evanston Township High School's Bacon Cafeteria (1600 Dodge Avenue). The CTA's annual budget hearing will be Wednesday, October 27 (4 p.m.) at the Palmer House (17 East Monroe).