Just days before the 2008 Summer Olympics, Richard M. Daley, Chicago's Mayor-For-Life, was in China taking test rides on Beijing's new state-of-the-art subway. With dreams of the 2016 Chicago games dancing in his head, Mayor Daley wanted to have a first-hand look-see at the modern marvel of the Beijing subway lines so he could augment his planned plea for help from Washington to rehabilitate his city's century-old creaking and cranky transit system.
As it turned out, the day after I'd watched TV reports about the mayor's magical transit train trip 7,000 miles away from home, I happened to be downtown, descending into the Chicago Avenue station at the early end of the evening rush hour. I had barely cleared the bottom step before I bumped into a mob of CTA passengers lined up as they waited to feed the transit card machines.
"What's going on?" I asked one of the 15 riders ahead of me in my line.
The woman I stood directly behind shrugged. I looked at the machines. Out of the six, four had out-of-order stickers slapped on them in the area where the money should have been going.
I stood there puzzled, slowly shuffling forward, fighting that feeling I get when I'm stuck in traffic on the toll way braking my way towards the booth for those without an I-Pass, when a uniformed CTA employee showed up within earshot.
"Why are so many of the machines broken?" I asked.
"They're not broke," he said, stopping and approaching me with a body language that said he loved taking on customers with a beef.
"They're not." I said in a questioning sort of way.
"No. They're full. They can't accept any more cash."
"These people they got in charge don't know what they're doing. They come in from out of town thinking they're so smart, ha."
Listening to the rumble of the Red Line train coming and going while I was still waiting in line left me missing the humor of it all.
"Gas is up to four bucks a gallon. It cost too much to drive so everybody's taking the train," he said. "The geniuses in charge haven't figured that out yet, so they only send a collector once a day. They ought to be sending somebody out here twice a day to get the money."
"I see," I said.
So that was it. The always broke and begging Chicago Transit Authority was so incompetently managed that it wasn't bothering to collect the money it needed so that it could be sure it collected more of the money it needed.
On Friday, I was reminded of my up close and personal observation of the CTA management's business acumen when Mayor Daley made a failing attempt to broker an agreement between his CTA officials and labor union leaders.
Obviously, the CTA's union leader knows the same thing the Chicago station CTA employee knew. After the mayor's futile effort, this is what Darrell Jefferson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, local 241 had to say about CTA bosses: "Outside of Enron, they probably have mismanaged themselves more than any corporation in America."
To the casual observer like myself, Jefferson's pronouncement applies to small things such as the rehab of the Armitage Avenue L station, where the track platform was extended to allow longer trains while the outdoor heater was left some distance away from the new boarding area. But it also applies to much more important things such as the 13 L derailments in the past five years. That grand sum amounts to more accidents than the New York City subway and Washington Metro combined during the same time period.
Of course, for the irregular CTA rider like me, tomorrow's round of bus route eliminations and schedule cutbacks is no great big deal. But it will be for the 1,100 CTA employees who will be laid off to cover the system's $95 million budget shortfall.
There is, however, more than one sign of hope.
Out of curiosity, I went underground Saturday afternoon at the Chicago Avenue station for a reality check. Only two of the six cash collecting machines had out-of-order stickers slapped on them.
Cyber Columnist Monroe Anderson is an award-winning journalist who penned op-ed columns for both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. You can read his blog at http://www.monroeanderson.typepad.com