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Will transit crisis affect Olympic bid?
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/30/2007 12:45 AM

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As bus and train riders fret over Sunday's looming fare hikes and service cuts, federal lawmakers eyeing a distant 2016 were told Monday that Chicago may need vast transit upgrades for the Olympics.

Yet, state lawmakers and the governor remain miles apart on a bailout deal for the CTA, Metra and Pace -- leaving serious doubt there will be enough transit improvements in the coming years to handle an estimated influx of 2 million Olympic enthusiasts.

"While not required, improvements would enhance Chicago's bid," Doug Arnot, operations chief for the Chicago 2016 Committee, told a U.S. House subcommittee hearing Monday.

A number of projects on the drawing board could significantly improve Olympic service, including a CTA Circle Line linking Metra and elevated train lines as well as the Metra STAR Line running from O'Hare to Elgin and Joliet.

But those projects cost billions of dollars and currently the transit agencies are struggling to simply keep the buses and trains running.

CTA and Pace officials are planning to ax several dozen bus routes on Sunday while also raising fares by as much as $1. Metra officials are debating a fare hike ranging from 5 to 10 percent and the elimination of Sunday service starting Jan. 1.

In the suburbs, many of the Pace routes on the chopping block shuttle Metra riders to overcrowded stations. CTA routes slated for elimination include express lines carting Metra riders to key employment centers downtown.

On Monday, House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said he will push later this week for approval of a sales-tax hike that would rake in more than $400 million for Metra, Pace and the CTA.

Yet, the measure has failed before.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and many House Republicans oppose the idea, but they have not come up with a solution palatable to a majority of lawmakers.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley ratcheted up his rhetoric Monday, calling this week "do or die time" for lawmakers.

"To me, it's pretty clear: Either they support public transit or they don't," Daley said, while not endorsing a particular funding plan.

As Chicago area lawmakers ramp up pressure to raise transit taxes, Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville sent a pointed letter Monday to transit officials, saying a tax hike "is NOT the only answer."

"It is a disservice to everyone to present the current situation as a tax increase --or transit meltdown," he wrote.

Watson proposes fare hikes to raise part of the cash.

Transit officials have not generally opposed modest fare hikes, but they have noted major increases seriously reduce ridership, making them financially counterproductive.

On average, fares account for less than half the cost of a transit ride. Raising them modestly only puts a small dent in the overall budget problems.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee is expected to scrutinize transit systems as it selects a host city. At least two of the cities competing against Chicago, including Madrid and Tokyo, boast modern, well-funded subways.

The other cities vying to host are: Baku, Azerbaijan; Doha, Qatar; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Prague, Czech Republic. The IOC is slated to select the host on Oct. 2, 2009.