Home Local A budget cliff is looming for CTA and Metra, and fare hikes and service cuts might not be able to fill it

A budget cliff is looming for CTA and Metra, and fare hikes and service cuts might not be able to fill it

by staff

In November 2019, people trying to get to work or take weekend outings crammed themselves onto the “L,” public buses and commuter trains at least 39.6 million times.

This November, riders took just over half that many trips, data from the Regional Transportation Authority shows.

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Though trains and buses are getting noticeably more crowded, the numbers serve as a reminder that many riders aren’t returning to their pre-pandemic habits. And with the number of riders still down, transit agencies in Chicago and across the country have been leaning on federal COVID-19 relief money to get by.

But the money is set to run out in 2025, and that has Chicago-area agencies staring down a $730 million budget hole, a gap the regional transit agency says is too big to fill with service cuts and fare hikes alone. Failing to address the situation could have economic and social consequences for a city that’s working to orchestrate a post-pandemic comeback, planners and experts said.

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Public transit must be able to meet the needs of employees who can’t drive but still need to show up in-person for their jobs, said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. And even for workers who have cars or the option to work from home, an efficient transit system is key to alleviating road congestion, which can be a frustration for residents and a driver of climate change.

A switch to driving by one-quarter of the people who used to consistently ride public transit could cost the region about $1 billion annually in lost productivity, according to CMAP estimates.

The heads of local transit agencies are pushing for more federal money. And the RTA, which oversees the region’s transit system, has proposed options such as higher taxes and tolls as possible solutions for the looming budget cliff.

It’s the start of a conversation also taking place in cities across the country as transit agencies scramble to address the end of funding they have come to depend on and ridership levels that may be depressed for years to come.

In Chicago, public transit agency budgets have historically relied partly on rider fares. As the CTA and Metra look to continue drawing back passengers, they are contending with the slow return of office commuters, complaints about service and concerns, real and perceived, about CTA safety.

Ridership on the CTA, Metra and Pace has ticked upward. In September, the RTA announced weekday ridership across the three agencies broke pandemic-era records when it topped 1 million — 62% of September 2019 levels — on multiple days.

Though people continue to rely on buses and trains to get to work and around the region, many office employees still work from home at least a few days a week. In the Loop, office occupancy has been rising but averaged about 49% of pre-pandemic levels in September, according to data from the Loop Alliance.

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Options still exist to encourage more people to get back on transit, said P.S. Sriraj, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center. Tactics such as congestion pricing can convince people to ride instead of drive, and transit agencies can partner with companies to offer enhanced transit benefits or different types of passes that make transit an appealing option to take to a variety of places, he said.

Still, there will likely have to be changes to how the transit agencies are funded to be able to provide equitable service, and avoid drastic service cuts, he said.

Transit agencies such as the CTA and Metra should offer frequent, reliable service throughout the day and boost weekend service, making transit a better option for trips other than office commutes, said Hayley Richardson, spokeswoman for the New York-based advocacy organization TransitCenter. Both agencies, like others across the country, have said they need to find more operators to run more service.

“There is so much evidence that riders will find another way to get around if they’re not being taken care of,” Richardson said.

That is the choice Michael Doyle made. He said he was an avid public transit rider in New York and then for nearly two decades in Chicago before the pandemic. When he recently started a new job, he looked forward to an easy bus commute from his home in Edgewater Beach to work in West Ridge.

But in his first week commuting in the fall, Doyle, 52, said the bus skipped his stop several times. That, combined with concerns about crime and conditions, has driven him away from public transit.

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Doyle doesn’t drive, and now largely relies on his partner or ride-shares.

Michael Doyle, of Chicago, at a bus stop across the street from his workplace in the 2800 block of West Peterson Avenue on Dec. 8, 2022, in Chicago. Doyle has decided to use ride-share services for now instead of using the CTA because of negative experiences, including having buses pass the stop while he waits.

He budgets nearly $450 a month for ride-share trips. It’s money he could otherwise put toward long-term savings, a down payment on a condo or vacations with his partner, he said.

“This has never been me in my life until this point in Chicago,” Doyle said. “And it’s not just that I can’t reliably take a bus to my job, which I should be able to do. But I’m afraid to get on public transit to do anything else.”

The CTA has begun taking steps intended to improve service, address security and help with so-called ghost trains and buses that fail to arrive. But the key to improving service is hiring more bus and train operators.

The agency should prioritize recruiting operators as part of its efforts to draw back more riders, offering competitive wages to attract new hires and addressing job-quality issues to retain workers, Richardson said.

The CTA has been holding job fairs, and recently raised starting wages and rates for certain employees. The agency plans to offer hiring bonuses for bus operators, bus mechanics and rail car repairers, and retention bonuses to eligible employees. The new hire incentives are budgeted at about $80 million for two years.

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The agency thinks focusing on improving service, infrastructure, and fares and passes will help draw more riders, spokesman Brian Steele said. Rider patterns continue to change, but for now, fare hikes and reduced hours of service are off the table, he said.

During the pandemic, the CTA and other transit agencies have benefited from strong sales tax collections, a portion of which are used to fund transit. Still, once the federal relief money runs out, the CTA will need more funding, he said.

“All other public services — police, fire, recreation — are almost 100% subsidized. Whereas, at least in the Chicago region, public transit is (about) 50% subsidized,” he said, referring to traditional requirements that Chicago public transit agencies rely partly on fares.

Jackie Strazis has also turned to driving, unable to make reduced Metra schedules fit her work hours.

Strazis, 55, used to take a 6:15 p.m. train home from her downtown office on Metra’s Heritage Corridor line, which has among the lowest ridership of any commuter line. She has returned to work in-person three days a week, but the last train out of the city now leaves at 5:25 p.m. She knows she won’t make the train if she can’t leave her office at exactly 5 p.m.

Strazis used to be a monthly Metra pass holder, but now finds herself driving into work on days she has late meetings. The days she takes the train, she misses out on end-of-the-day socializing and networking as she rushes out the door, she said. The days she drives, her commute is nearly twice as long.

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“I enjoy taking the train,” she said. “Driving is a giant pain in the butt.”

Commuter Mike Gorski relaxes in his seat aboard a Metra Heritage Corridor line train en route to his Willow Springs stop on Dec. 7, 2022.  Gorski takes Metra two days a week for work.

Metra recently announced it will be tweaking Heritage Corridor schedules starting Dec. 12, including pushing back the last train out of the city by five minutes. It will also be tweaking other schedules and has added trains on other lines, in some cases expanding midday and rush hour trains.

Metra service is not back to pre-pandemic levels on every line, and the agency is limited in its ability to change schedules because it shares tracks with freight lines and by staffing, spokesman Michael Gillis said. The agency has hired dozens of conductors and engineers during the pandemic for the lines it owns and operates, and now remains down 34 conductors and nine engineers from 2019 levels.

In another effort to draw back riders, Metra recently extended flat-rate monthly and daily passes that had been tested during the pandemic.

But addressing changing ridership patterns through fares and increased service will take more funding, Gillis said. The agency wants to avoid cutting service or raising fares, he said.

“What are we, as a society, going to do to sustain public transportation?” he said. “And that’s a question that’s going to have to be answered in the next couple of years.”

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Even aggressive service cuts and fare increases wouldn’t be enough to close the looming financial hole, which could amount to nearly 20% of the regionwide budget, RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden said.

Instead, the agency proposed new ways to fund public transit in a draft strategic plan made public Dec. 5, including increasing or expanding sales, motor fuel and other taxes. The suggestions included implementing congestion pricing on Chicago-area highways and raising prices on the tollways. The agency is floating increases in some types of state funding and raising vehicle registration fees.

A commuter gets settled aboard a Metra Heritage Corridor line bound for Joliet at Union Station in downtown Chicago on Dec. 7, 2022.  The Heritage Corridor line has among the lowest ridership of any commuter line.

There’s no guarantee federal or state lawmakers would back the proposals, but Redden said the role transportation plays in the region’s economy, and the role the region’s economy plays in the state, give the suggestions credibility.

Leaders of the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace were also among more than a dozen agencies that signed onto a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg seeking continued federal assistance.

Aleman, of CMAP, said money from any new sources should go further than funding transportation the way it is now. It could go toward improvements to make the system more useful to riders, like dedicated bus lanes on highways.

“Transit needs to be responsive to the needs of people who have to get to their jobs on a daily basis,” she said.

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sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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