cta t logoIf you’re familiar with Chicago and Boston, then you’ll know that the CTA is the Chicago Transit Authority and the MBTA (also known as the "T") is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. But I never really thought about whose retirement plan was the richest in America until I saw this story carried by the BostonHerald.com, Critics blast MBTA’s costly pension plan.

So being a proud Chicagoan, my competitive nature kicked in when the story quoted Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, as saying

It appears to be the richest retirement program in America. There’s no way we can afford the pension and health care benefits.

It seems that T employees can retire after only 23 years of service, with full health insurance. And then work for the state with no restrictions. Most state employees, said the article, can’t retire until they are 65 and are limited to where they can work afterwards.

But with all due respect to Mr. Widmer, let me invoke some civic pride here. Our CTA pension plan offers retirees premium-free health insurance, and allows some employees to retire at full pension in their 40s, after 25 years of service. The agency has tightened the requirements for those hired in 2002 and later, who must be 55 to retire.

Can these benefits be afforded? In 1993 the CTA pension plan was 99% funded, meaning it had funds available to pay nearly all of its projected expenses, according to the agency’s annual pension plan reports. Now the CTA’s pension funding ratio is the 34%, the lowest for any agency in the state.

And the fix? A tax increase, of course. As the result of protracted and contentious negotiations between the state legislators and the Governor, a funding package was passed earlier this year which included an increase in the sales tax that prevented massive service cuts. Part of the deal included a separate real estate transfer tax that will be used to help the CTA bail out its pension liabilities.

The tax, which used to be paid by buyers and now by sellers, will increase from $7.50 to $10.50 per $1,000 of sales price. Doesn’t sound like much? Let me do the math. Someone selling a home in a Chicago neighborhood with an average price of $262, 268 would pay $2,360 under the current tax rate. After the increase, they would pay $3,147 -  a 40% increase in a recessionary economy seeing falling real estate prices.

And so while we can match Boston’s costly transit retirement plan, I’ll concede that Boston does have it over Chicago in at least one respect. Boston’s transit system (which used to be called the MTA) – not Chicago’s – has a man named Charlie. Take a look.

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