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Thursday, April 28, 2005 10:12 pm

Promises, promises

Other than a handful of state employees, highway workers, Medicaid vendors, commercial-truck owners, and poor people, few out there in Voter Land have really paid much attention to the state’s budget problems.

Sure, they know that the troubles exist, but only on an abstract level. Most people have very few direct contacts with state government, and those few state services haven’t been noticeably curtailed yet. Roads are still passable; drivers’ licenses are still up to date; most senior citizens aren’t getting tossed out of nursing homes; schools, though obviously struggling, are still open.

This lack of regular contact with state government is a big reason I figured that Gov. Rod Blagojevich could almost guarantee his reelection by keeping his pledge not to raise state income or sales taxes. If a traffic light fails, people blame their local government, even though state funding for a repair hasn’t arrived as promised. If a school budget runs into the red and forces a tax increase, they blame the school board, even though they may know that the state may not be holding up its end.

However, the Chicago Transit Authority’s latest fiscal crisis is connecting millions of people in Chicago and Cook County with the state’s budget problems in a very real way — and residents of the state’s most populous area are starting to take notice.

The CTA provides about 400 million total rides a year on its vast network of trains and buses. About a third of its riders don’t have their own cars, and, even if they do have private transportation, few regular CTA commuters are willing to fork over the $20 to $30 a day it costs to park downtown these days. To top it all off, cab fares are about to go up 12 percent.

This month, the CTA threatened massive service rollbacks to deal with a $55 million deficit and, in the process, set off a media firestorm in the metro region. The worst cuts were the elimination of express-bus service to areas far from the Loop, which will force thousands of commuters to ride buses that stop every block or so for miles on end. Increasing times between trains during rush hour will also be a problem because the delays will most likely create jam-packed stations and compartments. Regular riders are left to wonder how they’ll possibly cope with the new and unwanted stressful change in their lives.

Downstate and suburban legislators don’t always fully appreciate the value of Chicago’s public-transportation network. Imagine, for a moment, that it was suddenly announced that the government could no long afford to maintain all of the roads in your area and that some streets would have to be closed and important main arteries would be narrowed to just one or two lanes. Sure, you’d find a way to make the best of the situation, but you wouldn’t be happy at all — especially if a mouthy Chicago legislator was quoted in the local paper saying that your town should just start charging people to use the streets and they’d be reopened.

As always in situations such as this one, the question everyone asks is “Who do we blame for this mess?” Luckily for the CTA and Mayor Richard Daley, the fickle finger of fate is pointing not at a handy local figure but directly at Blagojevich.

It was the governor who promised to bail out the CTA in February by charging a new statewide sales tax on computer software. So far he’s not having a whole lot of luck, but if he doesn’t come through with the money, he’ll wind up wearing the CTA’s tattered jacket.

This one issue won’t make or break the governor’s reelection chances. But it has finally provided us with a major contact point between a large swath of the general public and the state budget, and that means that solving the problem has become somewhat more important than most of the other, far more expensive budget crises. And this time the governor won’t be able to pin the blame on someone else.

In local politics, if you promise to fix something you’re expected to actually fix it.

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