Transit officials turned up the heat on feuding lawmakers today with the threat of union walkouts that would shut down buses and trains next year if taxes aren't raised.
"We are about at wits' end," said Rick Harris, head of the CTA's rail union, at a morning press conference in Chicago. "Maybe we have to show you exactly what a doomsday looks like. Maybe that is the signal that needs to be sent."
The threats came soon after Gov. Rod Blagojevich canceled a morning meeting with legislative leaders to hash out a deal on a transit bailout and casino expansion. Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said the meeting was ditched because House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley declined to attend.
A similar meeting on Wednesday broke down into "shouting and threats and accusations," according to Madigan, who left the gathering early after Daley.
Legislative leaders have until the end of the year to come up with about $400Ã¦million in new taxes to prevent sweeping service cuts and fare hikes at the CTA, Pace and Metra.
The transit bailout has been linked by Republicans and Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, to a casino expansion proposal that would bring in billions of dollars for new roads. Legislative leaders and the governor are considering up to three new casinos, including one in Chicago, as well as slots at racetracks like Arlington Park.
Political battles between the governor and Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, have been largely blamed for months of gridlock on the casino package and transit bailout.
Meanwhile, the seriousness of the CTA union's threat of strike-like actions remains unclear. Under state law, transit unions are not allowed to strike, but local AFL-CIO president Dennis Gannon said unspecified "job action" could stifle the system.
It also remains unclear whether unions for Pace and Metra would follow suit.
If the service cuts do occur next year, Pace would layoff more than 240 workers and the CTA would hand out pink slips to more than 2,000.
Transit officials made it clear today that they are grasping for leverage in the push to get more funding for transit. So far two separate dates set for fare hikes and service cuts have been pushed off by last-minute loans or grants from Blagojevich.
"Responsible people have to act now before the end of the year," said Jim Reilly, head of the Regional Transportation Authority, as he slammed his hands repeatedly on the podium.
Two proposals are on the table. A Chicago area sales tax hike is supported by transit officials and Madigan. Using money from the new casinos is supported by the governor, Jones and Republicans.
Reilly said he wasn't sure using casino money would be politically viable because it would mean downstate residents might end up footing the bill for Chicago area transit. However, he did open the door to a modest fare hike as part of the deal, a concession Republicans see as a bit of sugar to help the tax hikes go down.