Road to Ruin

The back room is part of the Chicago mythos. It’s a tucked-away place where city players—people with connections—breathe in cigar smoke and broker inside deals to divvy up taxpayer money. It’s a place where power is expressed in naked patronage, rarely to the benefit of the citizens whose interests elected officials are supposed to oversee. The back room is also a place, as the Chicago Tribune’s recent series on the CTA makes clear, that’s very real.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued a report on a 2006 CTA Blue Line subway derailment. The accident, which took place during rush hour, forced roughly 1,000 passengers to find their way through smoke-filled tunnels to the nearest emergency exit, many with no guidance.

The investigation that followed revealed that the CTA’s mismanagement wasn’t limited to the accident response. As the Tribune reports, “’We found hundreds of records missing, literally hundreds,’ said Cy Gura, an investigator who served as chairman of the safety board’s track, signal and engineering group. ‘The CTA said the work was done, but there was no record. The [track] gauge problem was not reported and the fixes were not reported.’”

Bob Chipkevich, director of the NTSB’s office of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations went as far as to say that the CTA’s conditions “were the worst he has seen at any U.S. transit agency.”

Where does the patronage come in? As CBS2 Chicago reports, the head of the CTA at the time of the accident, Frank Kruesi, “has…been a close friend of the mayor’s for about 35 years, going back to when Mayor Daley was a state senator. Kruesi and Daley were even roommates for a period of time.”

The Blue Line derailment (and the maintenance abandonment that preceded it) weren’t the only problems during Kruesi’s time at the helm. Slow zones on the city’s most widely used Blue, Red and Brown lines extended across 25% of the system, reducing transit to a crawl. Additionally, Kruesi’s biggest priorities during his tenure were expensive boondoggles, such as the Block 37 project, which has gone $150 million over budget building a vanity station to anchor a multiuse development dear to the mayor. Such poor service and a skewed sense of priorities have animated many of the CTA’s failures.

The CTA’s problems are amplified by its management structure. As an independent government agency, the CTA is subject to the stereotypical laziness and not-my-jobism of non-profit work. Its independent status provides further insulation from accountability, as the city government, and Mayor Daley in particular, can point to the agency’s independence whenever riders complain. He’d love to do something, you see, but it’s out of his hands. (This is despite the fact that the mayor has named four individuals on the organization’s seven-member board).

Ultimately, no one is responsible for the CTA’s failures. No one will be until a tragedy happens, at which point Daley will pause just long enough to say, “No one could have anticipated this,” before finding a scapegoat for the blame.

In the meantime, riders have to cross their fingers as the system decays further and budget problems threaten even more drastic cuts in service. They’ll find little consolation in the words of NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson: “We believe the CTA system could be significantly safer. While we are encouraged that the CTA has taken some steps, the work is not done until they address our safety recommendations in totality.”

What Knudson doesn’t say is this: Safety improvements are nice, but unfortunately, there’s no money in it.

Update: Ben Javorsky of the Chicago Reader has a nice summation of the current CTA debacle (you know, if this one didn’t do it for you).