Busy Building Buslines

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Public transit is basic urban infrastructure, though not every community in Chicago enjoys adequate services.  Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) works to better understand the transportation needs of our community.  Our work around public transit began back in the 1990s by doing a 2-year, door-to-door survey of neighbors.  The results of that effort led to our participation in coalition efforts to defend Cermak Blue Line Service.  The coalition won a $479 million rehab of the 54/Cermak El branch and the restoration of weekend train service.

In 2008, we wanted an update on people’s transportation needs. Partnering with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), we held a series of charettes, or community-based planning sessions.  People gathered around maps to visualize what they wanted for their community in the coming decades.  Among many ideas put forth, Little Village students and families suggested a new bus route.  Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS) had recently been built, the victory of a hunger strike by area mothers in 2001.  Yet, CTA had no regular service to the school. In 2006, LVLHS students petitioned the CTA Board to extend bus service to the school.  The result was that a few Pulaski buses were extended beyond the normal route at school start and dismissal.  Still there was no regular bus service for before and after school hours for students in tutoring, detention, sports, theatre, etc.

In 1997-8, CTA had cut 31st Street Bus Service.  It was claimed to be a low-performing route.  Ridership was deemed insufficient to justify the cost of operations.  What CTA failed to take into account is that for transit dependent riders, routes like 31st Street are a lifeline to work, school, stores, etc.
After 10 years without service, new developments like the high school and a new shopping center meant increased demand for a route.  Organizers and volunteers began mapping out a route, based on community input. We decided to go beyond a simple local route and designed one to connect Little Village with the rest of the city.  It would make a connection with 3 El Lines (Orange, Red, Green), and continue on to the 31st Street Beach.  From the beach, the route could run express to McCormick Place, Soldier Field, the Museums, Northerly Island.  This would provide the West and South Side with improved access to jobs, education, and recreation.

We collected over 2000 petitions to support the route.  We surveyed neighbors about the route, schedule, and frequency of service.  Finally, we identified the Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) Program, a federal grant program to fund routes like the one we were planning.  We presented CTA with the demand that they restore the 31st Street Bus with Lakefront Access.  To our surprise, CTA agreed to carry out the grant application!  LVEJO collected over 20 letters of support from area businesses and compiled further research to demonstrate need. CTA projected the route would serve some 250,000 potential riders, crossing 6 wards.  We were elated at the progress, and continued to mobilize folks to public hearings and budget meetings to speak out in favor of the route.  After some confusion about the grant process, we received word in April 2009 that CTA had been awarded the JARC funds to begin 31st Street Service.  We pushed for service to begin that summer.

It was at this point that the effort began to lag.  CTA lacked local funds to match the federal grant and would soon be announcing another budget crisis (It’s not a Doomsday, they would say).  CTA would cut 9% of El Service, 18% of bus service and cut 1060 union positions.  Clearly, CTA would not be adding new routes while it was cutting hours on the existing system and laying off workers.

We had been preparing ourselves to understand what was happening and what we might do about it.  In winter of 2009 we joined Transit Riders for Public Transportation (TRPT), a national campaign for civil rights and environmental justice in public transportation.  Through this campaign, we learned that the Doomsday was not just a case of local corruption and waste.  Rather, cities across the country were facing similar austerity measures.  Transit’s chronic woes were tied to something called the Federal Surface Transportation Authorization Act (FSTAA).  This bill is renewed every 5-7 years and shapes transportation and land use across the country.  Typically called the “Highway Bill,” 82% of it goes to highways and roads.  Transit gets less than 20%, none of which can be used for the operation of transit systems.

We discovered that 31st Street Bus Service had been a casualty of transit cuts during the Gingrich Congress of the 1990s.  A string of conservative Supreme Court rulings had stripped people’s civil rights to challenge discriminatory policies like this.  In the face of the climate crisis, peak oil, the recession, the growing growing racial and income inequality, could we flip the script on transportation spending?  Could we level the playing field for public transportation and restore civil rights?  We believe we can.  LVEJO has joined 5 delegations to Washington.  We’ve opened up the debate on transit operations funding and civil rights.  We’ve presented at the Green Festival and the US Social Forum on transit, environmental justice and climate justice.  Still, we are struggling as a minority voice in the transit debate.

Furthermore, any benefits from a struggle to shape national policy will be late coming.  Already postponed twice, the surface transportation bill will not be passed until at least 2011.  Meanwhile, more workers may lose their jobs and services are not coming back.  This has led us to a “by any means necessary” mentality regarding the 31st Street Bus Service.  One idea we have is to get the White Sox, Chicago Bears and the Museums to support the route by matching CTA’s federal funds.  A second idea for a transit coop has come about through conversations with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  IWW and LVEJO have been looking into what it would take to form a worker self-managed, community controlled, transit cooperative to run bus service.  We are exploring if we can run a better service, with union scale wages and benefits, for less cost.  The added benefit would be that this would also set an example of workplace democracy and community accountability, two things that clearly are absent from the Daley-controlled CTA.  Everything will depend on what neighbors and workers say they want, when we go out to talk to them this summer.

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