Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ron Huberman, who's that?

This is Ron Huberman, the president of the CTA and the person I had coffee with on Saturday morning along with other readers of the CTA Tattler, the blog that you may have heard of due to Jim and I being featured on our anniversary this past April. I was asked to keep this meeting underwraps until the meeting - I was so excited. Talk about being geeky about something - even Jim was calling me a geek in excess. I took some notes on the around 90 minute conversations and here are those highlights.

First, I should say that I really like what this CTA president has done - I am impressed that he rides the CTA each day to work; and it is well noted that he is on the CTA most days....something that other CTA presidents have not done. He seems well connected to what people actually care about as riders and I was excited to see if this was true. It seems to be true; I mean this guy did give up a couple hours of a Saturday to hear from riders.

The question that I had prepared that I was unable to ask due to the conversation that ensued; that I think I will continue to look for the answer was: What do you see as the cost savings of not having cash transfers? How much money is this making the CTA? Is it worth the cost of making the poor more than the rich?

Mr. Huberman first talked about the strides of the CTA in the past year which mostly had to do with capital work. From trying to eliminate bus bunching (which he explained to us how things like that happen, when to the common eye it seems like an easy problem to fix), the work on the EL tracks (using plastic ties instead of wood due to longer life span, are recycled and are quieter), helped us understand the loop signals that are taking longer than the public expected, and the greening of the CTA including a hybrid bus that runs only on battery at 20mph or less. A funny story that he talked about was the elevators of the stations. He asked for all the elevators to have their floors ripped out and replaced with plastic lining that has lips - so that urine does not ruin the floor and can be cleaned. He laughed and said -"It seemed easier to do that then try to get to stop urinating in the elevators." Another capital improvement is the rapid buses. On test routes starting in 2009 - people will pay at the bus stop and then just get on the bus - so the buses have a different design with 3 doors to be more rapid entry. One test route is Halsted #8 bus.

The coming year the focus is communication. The CTA is trying to work on getting more information to the public when service is different than normal. Contracts are being signed for plasma screens to be installed in all the EL stations to announce next train coming and advertising unless there is an emergency when the whole screen is used for communicating the problem and alternate routes around the problem. They are currently working on updating the alert systems for live alerts. They are going to post a 800 number in each train to call for updates if folks are stuck on a train. They also have given red and blue line drivers special phones to get into the control center so that they can get information directly in an emergency because traditional radio that are used in normal everyday communication are totally taken over by the folks that are fixing the train or problem instead of communicating with the driver and then the customers the problem. They will be unveiling a new website (that looks really cool) in the next 6 months. The website will change from a normal website to an emergency message if an emergency exists.

The folks sitting around with Mr. Huberman mostly raved about bus tracker. I also think it is amazing! Currently, he reported that the reliably at around 90% due mostly to ghost bus problems, the system thinks a bus is there when there is not. They want to work out those kinks before adding more bus lines, and only as an entire bus route has new buses (a plan for the capital side) does bus tracker go online for that route. Bus stops will soon offer a number to text to recieve a text back when the next bus will arrive in addition to the steps already in place. On the new website there is a section entitled "Rides tool lab" which will be a open source area with all the data that techies can use in many ways to write there own programming (Jim was excited and gave me an example- he could, using this open source, write a program specifically to tell him the fastest way to work each morning. I am excited for that because of all the ways that Jim can make that work for me.)

We talked about bus transportation as well. Recently, they changed the way they change bus drivers. We live right by Kedzie garage where many drivers start and end shifts (or at least it feels that way). It used to be that one driver could leave the bus and that shift change could take up to 10 minutes - with riders on the bus waiting. Now, those shift changes can only take up to 60 seconds before managers are alerted. This lead into conversations about what was accepted and not accepted as driver behavior. Drivers, Huberman said, are not even allowed to talk using bluetooth. He encouraged to take pictures with our phones if we saw drivers eating, talking on phones or other behavior that was not accepted. He did emphasize that most drivers (and I agree) are wonderful. Bus drivers often work split shifts that are a total of 10 hours a day and he gave them credit for working so hard. I thought of my singing bus driver that is often found on the Madison #20 bus.

We talked about budget a bit; due to that being in the news of late. Ron Huberman was quite happy where the budget was and while the media has been portraying it as a "doomsday" it seems that he doesn't name it that way due to there are no service cuts on the line. Fuel for the buses is up 80% from last year, energy for the EL is also about 30 million more (I think that is what he said, I was unsure.) Due to the soft economy, the income from sales tax is down (my understanding is that about 1 1/4% of the sales tax in Chicago goes to the CTA) and the income from the real estate transfer tax is also down (50% less than last year, if I understood correctly). The free ride program that was enstated as a part of the state bailout last year has cost about 66 million, 8 million more free rides than the previous year. The fare increase that has been tossed around in the media is probably coming.

Huberman shared that the idea of extending the red line to 130th would be one of the best ideas to expand ridership. He mentioned the circle line being on the table still.

I was quite impressed with the President; he knows his stuff. I was impressed with his education model - he really is wanting to educate people about the CTA; helping people understand the bigger picture and I hope that a communication focus for the coming year helps the whole organization to be more educational in this way. I was impressed with his detail of knowledge about the bus routes and stations, his not sugarcoating issues, and his ability to converse.

My concern lies in the same vein that my question that I had crafted, I suppose. All that were sitting around were asked to share their commute and I was the only one who did not live and primarily use northside routes. There are reasons for this - due to the blog that I read I already know that many of the folks that read CTA Tattler are indeed northsiders. I hope that more and more the CTA looks to improving the whole system and not just the folks that have the luxtury of raising a stink and spending a saturday morning drinking expensive coffee and smoothies talking to the president. I recieved hope in Ron's comments about extending the red line and other comments but I do worry about the system as a whole.

If you got to this far in the post, bless you and thanks for reading.

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