The El is inseparable from Chicago: In a 2005 poll, Chicago Tribune readers ranked the city’s unique transportation system as its third wonder, placing it ahead of the Sears and Water towers (it still couldn’t beat Wrigley Field, which should give you some idea of how Chicagoans think). A 2006 survey showed that more than 650,000 people ride it every day. Heck, it even made appearances in The Blues Brothers and The Fugitive.
It’s also a safe bet that every Northwestern student has ridden it or will do so by the time they leave for Thanksgiving. Let’s face it, you just can’t beat the El for getting around Chicago. It’s fast, somewhat cheap, goes most places you’d want to visit, and you get to meet all kinds of interesting people (read: crazies). And if the El doesn’t take you where you need to be, odds are you could catch a bus to take you there.
However, a huge budget snafu is throwing all of that into question. The Chicago Transit Authority has been dealing with an antiquated funding system that doesn’t account for growth in the suburbs, which left the CTA with a $110 million deficit for 2007. All kinds of political wrangling with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich – who you may recognize by his sexy RedEye nickname, G-Rod – couldn’t do anything to clear up the problems, so the CTA turned to rate increases and service cuts.
That spells major trouble for riders, to the tune of a 50-cent increase for bus fares and a one-dollar increase for train fares during rush hours. Pace buses are also increasing fares. There are also service cuts across the board, including some bus routes being eliminated from our fair Evanston. The Evanston buses that would be cut include the route to Old Orchard (CTA #205) and one that ran from Ryan Field to the Chicago campus (Pace #426).
This has been played up as the end of the world for most Chicagoans: The Sun Times ran a typically tabloid headline of “Countdown To Agony.” (Read the initials. Funny, right?) Some riders are talking about having to cut out family movie nights, magazine subscriptions or meals at nice restaurants, which sounds a lot like Al Gore in 2000 telling us about little old ladies choosing between eating and paying for medicine. But seriously, for low-income workers who ride the El to work, an extra two bucks every day means a lot.
For us college students, though, these CTA cuts are also bad news. It’s already difficult to make it to Chicago on a budget, and the extra fares certainly won’t help. There’s also the issue of service cuts, which mean we’ll be waiting longer for trains. Some classes require you to go into the city, and nobody’s got the time to just sit around and wait for the El (especially when your professor is waiting impatiently at the Art Institute). All these cuts in Evanston are going to make it harder to get around, but we dodged a huge bullet when they decided to keep the Purple Express (for those not familiar, the Purple Express, named for our lovely school color, goes from any stop in Evanston to a few important stops in Chicago in a lot less time than a normal train would). Plus, there’s that whole environmental impact thing, if you’re into that.
These cuts, which were due to start last week, were put off until November thanks to a $24 million advance by G-Rod. Really, though, that’s just a Band-aid on a pretty serious wound and unless the politicians in Springfield can work out a sensible solution (not likely), these cuts are coming soon.
So what’s a Northwestern student to do? You could bring a car, but I can speak from three weeks of experience and say that it’s more hassle than it’s worth (although the City of Evanston must love the dollars I’m donating to them through parking fees and tickets). A better option is to start getting real friendly with anyone who does have a car. There’s also the Intercampus Shuttle, which takes you and tons of grad students to the Ward building, within walking distance of the Mag Mile.
But the worst part of this whole CTA headache for Northwestern? We’re probably going to have to resurrect that tired old U-Pass debate.