Non rush-hour riders feel effects of CTA cuts most

By Patrick Smith

Ten minutes after 10 p.m. on Feb. 10, the speakers on the westbound Fullerton Avenue bus carried a familiar message: “On February 7, 41 bus routes had their run-times cut, and 119 buses and seven train lines had services reduced. Please allow for additional travel time,” the speaker said to the passengers on the standing-room-only No. 74.

However, the riders did not need a reminder. People who use public transit at night or in the early morning have been hit the hardest by the Chicago Transit Authority service reductions, which the agency said were necessary to make up a $95.6 million budget deficit in 2010. But three days into the drastic reduction of service, the CTA board approved $550 million in revenue bonds to pay for 446 new rail cars. The agency also began installing high-definition security cameras in its rail stations last week.

“[Riding the bus at night] has definitely been a lot worse since the 7th,” said Alex Ontiveros, a DePaul University student on his way home from class.

Other riders on the bus agreed, and said the bus was more crowded than it had been the week before.

Two-and-a-half hours later and one mile north, a fast-filling Belmont Avenue bus pulled away from the stop at Clark Street and Belmont, and unlucky riders who missed its departure had to wait another 25 minutes for the next bus.

A group of people waiting for the bus were vocal in their assertion that riding the bus at night became much harder in the past week.

“The Belmont bus has been kind of a nightmare since the cuts,” said Charlie Smith, who works in the Lakeview neighborhood and lives near Belmont and Milwaukee Avenues.

Smith gets off work around 12:30 a.m. and goes out of his way to catch the Belmont bus at Halsted Street, the No. 77’s first stop after 12:45 a.m., so that he can board the bus before it becomes too crowded.

“It’s doable, but it’s always packed,” Smith said. “You need to get on it at the far end to get a seat.”

According to the CTA’s monthly ridership report for December, CTA trains and buses averaged 1,489,505 boardings each weekday. Of those, about 825,000 were riding during peak hours, according to an e-mail from Catherine Harris, CTA media relations, meaning more than 660,000 people were depending on public transit during off-peak hours.

In every press release and public statement made about the service reductions, the leadership of the CTA said it had done what it could to minimize the impact of cuts on rush-hour service. But some riders who use buses and trains at other times of the day and night said they feel the preservation of the rush-hour buses and trains came at their expense.

“It’s a product of other priorities,” said John Beacham, coordinator for No CTA Cuts, an activist group of CTA employees and riders that protested against the cuts.

According to Beacham, the agency cares more about providing service to riders during rush hour than to the people who need it at other times. “The less service there is, it’s just adding to working people’s troubles,” Beacham said.

According to Smith, even on the night of Feb. 9, when a winter storm warning had driven people indoors, the Belmont Avenue bus was packed by the time it got to Southport Avenue, the westbound bus’ sixth stop.

There are no data about who exactly is riding the bus at night, but an anecdotal survey by The Chronicle of buses running between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. found people headed home from school, or going to or from work. And nearly all of them said they did not have any other option for travel.

The new rail cars will ultimately cost the agency $674 million. CTA President Richard Rodriguez called them “much needed.”

Beacham said it’s a clear sign the CTA does not prioritize preserving service for people who need it most.