No Cuts on the Party Line

Mr. Kruesi goes to Springfield–and comes back with precious little.

By Neal Pollack

Early on a Wednesday morning, a comfortable motorcoach with reclinable seats, a working bathroom, television screens overhead, and a full stock of morning papers, orange juice, and muffins cruises toward Springfield on Interstate Highway 55. It carries a cargo of Chicago aldermen, political apparatchiks, worried-looking public-relations flacks, and a few reporters.

This is a well-publicized field trip to the state capital. The state legislature is holding a special veto session, and the city is sending 36 aldermen on three private buses to lobby for more state money for education, health care, and the Chicago Transit Authority.

Frank Kruesi, the new president of the CTA, is in charge of the transportation bus. He moves up and down the aisle, even as most of the passengers snooze and read their papers. Kruesi just started his job three weeks ago. He was once notorious as Richard M. Daley’s chief enforcer and policy guy at the state’s attorney’s office, where he earned the nickname “Honest Frank” for leaking reporters false information on the Gary Dotson rape trial. Kruesi followed Daley to City Hall, where reporters referred to him as Daley’s Rasputin or his Machiavelli. “Think of a guy who would stick two dead rats on the ends of a wire coat hanger and sell them to a blind man for earmuffs,” Tribune columnist John Kass wrote about Kruesi in September. “Not for the money. Just for the challenge.”

For the last four years Kruesi has been in Washington, D.C., at a mid-level policy job in the U.S. Department of Transportation. Now he’s back, and people are getting to know him. Getting to know all about him. The aldermen are relatively silent on the bus ride, while Kruesi moves through the aisles, chatting and spinning away.

“This morning I was taking the Red Line and the Purple Line into work,” he says, “and I was talking to the custodian. This was about 6:30 this morning at my home station of Berwyn. He was sweeping the street. Sweeping the sidewalk. I went up and introduced myself. ‘Hi, Mr. Kruesi, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ he said. Shake hands. He said, ‘My name is…oh, it doesn’t matter.’ I said, ‘No, it does matter.’ He said, ‘Ed Keating.’ I said, ‘Pleased to meet you, Ed, you’re doing a good job.’ He said good luck and I said you too. It’s that mind-set of, ‘oh, it doesn’t matter, I’m just a little person,’ or, ‘it doesn’t matter what I do.’ It shows. That makes people feel that they’re not important and that nobody cares.”

Kruesi says he’s ridden every train line on the CTA since he took over, and as many of the bus lines as possible. Sometimes he passes out his business card to riders and employees, sometimes he doesn’t. That’s because he’s a passenger, “like everybody else.” He’s waited for trains “like everybody else.” He’s dealt with ludicrous, inexplicable delays “like everybody else.” “We’ve lost 30 percent of our riders in the last ten years. That oughta tell us something’s wrong. Now, it’s partly demographics, but a lot of it is people saying, ‘We don’t need this anymore.’ We need to bring these people back.”

The CTA certainly won’t be bringing back the 25,000 or so daily riders who have already lost or will lose their CTA service in the upcoming months. On October 5, the CTA instituted the first round in a yearlong series of service cuts that will virtually isolate poor neighborhoods on the south and west sides from the rest of the city. The agency eliminated ten bus lines and weekend service on several others. By March, many more cuts will have taken effect, including a weekend shutdown of the Douglas el line and hourly reductions on more than 70 percent of the buses all over the city, including on heavily traveled routes such as Lincoln Avenue. The CTA has been talking about providing “alternative service” to neighborhoods affected by the cuts, including private vans, or “jitneys,” that run on flexible routes, but it’s been all talk.

At a City Council meeting on September 10, Alderman Ricardo Mu–oz introduced a resolution, signed by 32 aldermen, calling for council hearings on the service cuts. The city gives the CTA a three-million-dollar-a-year operating subsidy, the state-mandated minimum. It hasn’t been raised since 1976, and Mu–oz and the other aldermen questioned whether it’s still adequate.

The hearings were stalled by Alderman Patrick Huels, who, before he resigned in disgrace last month, was chairman of the Transportation Committee. They were finally scheduled for October 24, but because of the Huels scandal ended up being held instead on Monday, October 27, three weeks after the cuts had begun. Mayor Daley held a press conference at the same time to announce the city’s new ethics regulations. As a result, media attendance at the hearings was sparse.

Aldermen Mu–oz, William Beavers, Robert Shaw, and Joseph Moore pummeled Kruesi and CTA chairman Valerie Jarrett about the service cuts. Shaw called the cuts “a terrible mistake.” Moore asked Kruesi why the CTA wasn’t looking for more money from the city. Kruesi responded that he wouldn’t turn such money down, but that the real problem was that the CTA didn’t get enough money from the state. Even if that city money were made available, Kruesi said, the cut bus lines wouldn’t be restored because too many of them ran too close to el lines or other bus lines.

“What are you going to do with this money if not restore our buses?” Shaw asked.

Kruesi explained that capital improvements need to come first, not operating money. The CTA’s infrastructure is crumbling: buses are years outdated, rail supports on all train lines are collapsing, and garages are antiquated. He pointed out that state and federal assistance to the CTA has dropped by nearly $50 million a year since 1990, and said that the city already adequately funds the CTA through a sales tax, fares, and the Chicago Police Department’s mass-transit unit, which provides subway security.

But the $200 million a year in sales tax figure that Kruesi has been quoting is disingenuous, aldermen say, since that money has always been in place. It isn’t a city subsidy, and neither is the police presence in the subways, which has been extant for years. Transit activists and aldermen are only calling for $10 or $15 million a year total, which would come from Chicago’s corporate fund. They know the city has the money–there’s an excess of $80 million in this year’s budget alone.

Since the service cuts took effect, Kruesi and Mayor Daley have repeatedly scoffed at the idea of raising the subsidy. Daley even said that riders would have to “pray” if they wanted their buses and trains restored.

Jacqueline Leavy also testified on October 27. She’s the head of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which has led the opposition to the CTA cuts. “When there’s a political will to prioritize an expenditure, then the city finds a financial way,” Leavy said at the hearing. “It is not an all-or-nothing world, it is not a black-and-white world. The line between the world of operating expenses and capital expenses is not either-or. We need leadership. We need the city to step up, just as they’ve done with the schools.”

The city could do a number of very simple things to raise money for the CTA, Leavy said. It could raise the parking tax 5 percent, it could waive five million dollars in CTA user and utility fees, it could make a $75 semester pass available to students enrolled in the city colleges. That alone would bring in $26 million a year, enough to pay for what is being “saved” by the service cuts.

Instead, the city was going once again to Springfield to beg for money. Leavy cautioned that the CTA had better have something specific to show the state legislature. But Leavy’s warning went unheard by Kruesi, who had left the chambers by the time she spoke.

Said Leavy, “If you think you’re going to go to Springfield, which community groups have been doing for years, and you’re going empty-handed without a detailed package about what the city plans to do about the CTA, then you’re going to come back empty-handed.”

At 11:30 AM on October 29, the transportation bus pulled up in front of the state capital. Hands extended, Kruesi was ready to prove her wrong.


The Illinois House Committee

on Transportation met a half hour later. Several aldermen testified. Thomas Allen, who’s taken over the Transportation Committee from Pat Huels, spoke first. Forty-eighth Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith gave a long presentation in which she showed how traffic has choked her far-north-side neighborhood in the last 30 years. Brian Doherty said, “We’re basically down here looking for a little help….It’s the aging infrastructure that we’re experiencing.” Danny Solis from the 25th Ward could have testified that the service cuts will make life extremely difficult for working families in Pilsen. Instead, he read a statement spoon-fed to him by the administration, limply asking the state for more money to help the CTA comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Robert Shaw was the only alderman to even mention the service cuts, or “service changes,” as the CTA is now calling them. He appealed to the legislature’s Republican side, saying, “The CTA has had to cut back some of these services that will inhibit the people who want to get off welfare in terms of trying to find jobs and go to work and trying to go to school and trying to equip themselves for jobs when these welfare programs end. I would hope that this committee, as well as both the house and senate, would take this into consideration in terms of providing additional assistance to the Chicago Transit Authority.”

Kruesi testified as well. His entire testimony was a variation on a theme which he sounded early on: “When one talks about repairing highways and rebuilding roads, it’s important to understand that it is no less vital to rebuild transit.” He continually stressed that highways and the CTA should be considered equally. He only mentioned the service cuts to show the committee that the CTA was saving money.

A question-and-answer period ensued, during which there was much discussion about a proposed hike in the state gas tax to help fund the CTA. In fact, later that day Governor Jim Edgar announced that he supported such a hike, which was basically what Kruesi was looking for. But Illinois Senate Republicans, who hold a legislative majority, later said they didn’t favor Edgar’s proposal.

Then the inevitable question arose. More than an hour into the hearing, a state representative asked, “Has the council taken formal action? Inciden-tally, welcome to Springfield to the aldermen. Have they taken formal action as far as the funding goes in support of the CTA?”

“I have just returned from Washington, spending over four years there,” Kruesi said. “But I do know one thing. I would not presume to speak on behalf of the City Council or the city of Chicago.”

“Alderman Smith, would you join us at the table, or any of the aldermen?” asked the legislator. “I’m just wondering whether there’s been a formal action taken.”

Mary Ann Smith came to the table. “We’ve taken several formal actions,” she said, “but really, to get the new head of the CTA in place, and come down here and make our opening moves in terms of reorganizing the CTA, restructuring it, designing a new form of accountability, exploring new opportunities for funding…”

“I appreciate that. My reason for asking is because sometimes in a veto session these bills may pop up on the final day at 11 o’clock at night.”

“Initial forms of legislation, somewhat nonspecific, have been passed. We’d be happy to share those with you. We’d also be happy to communicate with you about things that are on the board. In the planning stage.”

“Excellent. From the planning folks, I would love to see something similar to a copy of the memorandum of understanding of 1989 on a gas tax increase. Thank you for joining us.”

“Oh, it’s a pleasure, really,” said Smith.

After some more talk between Kruesi and the committee, Smith came back holding a sheet of paper.

“I’d like to introduce into the record a list of some of the efficiencies the CTA has recently initiated,” she said. “In partial response to some of your questions.”

These “efficiencies” include: $1 million in savings from “reducing overtime through better management,” $13 million for “converting the remainder of the rail system to one-person operations,” and $11 million for “implementing a new, automated fare-collection system to minimize cash handling and reduce labor costs.” Other “efficiencies” involved scaling back the employee health plan, cutting back worker’s compensation payments, laying off 2,000 workers, and, of course, the service cuts. One-person train-car operations, Kruesi has estimated, will cause each trip on the Blue and Red lines to last at least ten minutes longer, if not more. A “customer service assistant” will be on board to do the conductor’s job. It’s hard to see how that will save money for the CTA.

The automated fare-collection system isn’t running well, either. Card machines are constantly broken, and the customer service assistants who have replaced ticket-booth agents are helpless to repair them. Machines are also constantly getting broken into by burglars, which has cost the CTA more than $50,000 since September.

After the hearing, Smith said the CTA was trying to take an “organizational approach” before examining the effects of the service cuts, and was still “trying to hire the best people.”

Kruesi said, “We have to get our house in order. We don’t encourage people to use the system. As employees, we get free service. And we’re driving to work? What does that tell our passengers? It tells them we don’t know the system ourselves. We don’t know what’s bullshit and what’s real. That’s not right.”

But when it came to more operating money for the CTA, Kruesi’s hands were empty. He had nothing to offer at all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank Kruesi photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.