Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric Wants More Service, Fare Integration

The Coalition for a Modern Metra Election, including Walt Kindred (3rd from left), Andrea Reed (4th from left), and Linda Thisted (center) in front of the Metra offices at 547 West Jackson. Photo: John Greenfield

Transportation advocacy organizations and community groups have joined forces as the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, pushing for improvements to the commuter rail line that could lead to better job access and more economic development on the South Side. They want to see rapid transit-style train frequency, fare and schedule integration with the CTA and Pace, and – eventually – the extension of the line all the way to O’Hare.

Right now Metra generally runs trains only once an hour on the Metra Electric District line, which goes about 30 miles from Millennium Station to south suburban University Park, with a few more trains running during the morning and evening rush hours. As such, it’s not nearly as useful as an ‘L’ line for general travel, and it’s not a great option for non-standard work commutes.

However, it wasn’t always that way. The MED started its life as a rapid transit line with dedicated tracks and closed stations. The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric wants to go back to the future, so to speak, by bringing back frequent service, with trains every 10-15 minutes, all day long.

Nowadays, if you need to ride downtown from the south suburbs or Southeast Side via the Metra Electric and continue on to a workplace on another side of the city, you need to pay the Metra fare, which is higher than the $2.25 charge for an ‘L’ ride, and then pay full fare for another train ride. Unlike riding on the CTA with a Ventra card, you don’t get a free transfer. As a result, some South Side residents choose to take a CTA bus to an ‘L’ line for their commute because it’s cheaper, even if the MED would be quicker.

Using a tap-on/tap off system on the MED would allow for fare integration on the CTA and Pace, which would save riders money. Image: CMME

The coalition wants to fix that problem by piloting tap-on and tap-off use of Ventra on the MED. This would allow customers to tap their Ventra card on a sensor before and after their ride, with the appropriate fare deducted according to the distance traveled. It would make it possible to provide a transfer discount for customers switch to the CTA or Pace.

In the long run, the coalition wants to see the MED connected to O’Hare Airport using Metra right-of-way, with stops at McCormick Place and Union Station, a scenario the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has proposed as part of its CrossRail plan to build a regional network of fast trains.

Mayor Emanuel wants to establish an express train between O’Hare and the Loop, so the MED solution would be a way to do this while creating better transportation access for residents of low-to-moderate-income communities on the South Side. That way the O’Hare Express wouldn’t just be a train for elites, and there would be the added benefit of direct access from the airport to conventions at McCormick Place for business travelers.

The idea of rapid transit on the Metra Electric has been around for decades. In the Nineties, rail advocate Mike Payne proposed having the CTA take over the MED, a scheme he called the Gray Line. In the 2000s, residents proposed a similar idea dubbed the Gold Line to provide frequent transit service to the Southeast Side as part of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

The CrossRail proposal would link the MED to Metra’s North Central line to create an express route to O’Hare. Image: Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Although we lost the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro (and judging from current developments in that city, perhaps that was a good thing), the Gold Line proposal eventually led to the creation of the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric. CMME currently includes the high speed rail association, the Active Transportation Alliance, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and seven Southeast Side community groups.

The coalition testified about their proposals at a Metra board meeting last week. Linda Thisted from Hyde Park-Kenwood’s Coalition for Equitable Community Development, who helped found CMME and serves as its spokeswoman, addressed the board.

Thisted noted that most of Chicagoland’s job growth is on the North and Northwest Sides, so more frequent MED service would give South Siders better access to these jobs. She added that the improved rail service would also connect businesses with more customers, encouraging economic investment, and it would make the Southeast Side and south suburbs much more appealing to new residents.

Thisted called on Metra to look into the cost and feasibility of a tap-on/tap-off payment system, model the possible effects of transfer discounts between the three local transportation systems, and estimate the capital and operational costs of running frequent train service on the MED’s main line and two branches.

“[The Metra board] seemed to be listening,” Thisted told me afterward. “What it always comes down to is where the money’s going to come from, and that’s where the elected officials come in.” CMME has sent letters to all of the state senators, state reps, and aldermen along the line to help build support and find funding. “We’re in the process of scheduling meetings with them because, frankly, they’re the ones that can get the money.”

With our city and state governments in dire economic straits, isn’t this a tough time to be asking for cash? “Yeah, but you’ve got to take the long view,” Thisted said. “Nothing in transit is fast. It’s not going to happen this year, but we’ve got to get things started.”

Metra Electric Train at the Homewood Station
A Metra Electric District train at the Homewood station in the south suburbs. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Andrea Reed, director of the Greater Roseland Chamber of Commerce, a coalition member, said the time is right for better transit access to her community. “With the designation of Pullman as a national monument, the 115th and Kensington station is going to become a destination stop,” she said. “We’re looking to host over 300,000 tourists a year. The station itself needs some work but it’s an ideal location because there’s space for retail – it would be great if there was a coffee shop there.”

Reed noted that more frequent train service would make it easier for Roseland residents who are seeking jobs outside of the community. “Currently they may be able to get to the job, but they may not be able to get home easily because the [more frequent rush-hour] service is cut off at a certain time,” she said. “So it would be great to have more transportation choices for our community.”

Walt Kindred, a CMME member who’s a professional musician as well as an investor in a project to build a supermarket in a West Side food desert, said improving Metra access to the Southeast Side could encourage more people from outside the area to spend money there. He noted that recent concerts at the South Shore Cultural Center brought hundreds of people to the neighborhood, but many of them drove or took buses there, seemingly unaware that there’s a Metra station across the street from the venue. The fact that people coming from other sides of town would have had to pay a double fare in order to take Metra there may have also served as a deterrent.

Improving MED frequency and creating a transfer discount would encourage more people to ride the train to South Shore, Kindred said. “If you have more people coming to the area, businesses want to be there, which means more jobs and less crime,” Kindred said. “So one thing feeds off the other. It just makes so much sense to me.”

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  • Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric

    Are we getting close yet? I suppose the idea is to create all these local interest groups each pushing a local agenda that will attract a base of local supporters so that we can create a grand coalition of all of them with clout enough to get a taxing base created to get all the ideas done over time.

    Okay so Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric is one. How many more can we think of here. Would Active Trans count. Would the Cook County Board count? Would Midwest High-Speed Rail count? Would Center for Neighborhood Technology count? Hell, does StreetsBlog count? Come on folks help me out and name some more.

    Or are these groups a really just a small number of people who recreate the same group over and over with new names?

    When can we finally get around to creating a Coalition of Transit Coalitions able to mash-up all the ideas and where they overlap declare consensus and where they don’t hash out the best.

    Because we know what is needed. Local and/or State taxes. And sure when we get them leverage federal tax money, if such ever exists again. And no we will get nothing out of Rauner or any other Republican and yes the neo-liberals like Emanuel will want to privatize it as much as possible.

    But never-mind. Our job is to coalesce the coalitions. Name me some more.

  • david vartanoff

    Fine, another coalition. The ideas are right, let’s see some movement! The necessary expenditures are really only the card readers and some signage. The fleet is sitting unused between AM and PM rush.
    Let us not forget to add service to Hegewisch with 4 restored stops (see 1950s CSS&SB schedules) obviating the need for extending the Red Line. (drop four pre-cast concrete platforms in place, add ramps for ADA and access sidewalks)

  • Thrown Roe

    The reason the CTA trains can operate frequently at low fares has a lot to do with labor costs. There’s just the 1 driver on the train. Can you operate Metra with a 1 person crew, safely? It’s going to be hard to get price-competitive while 4 crew members punch tickets on every trip.

  • neroden

    Metra Electric? Yes, you can operate it safely with a 1-person crew. Is Metra *willing* to do so? Different question. Will the stone-age Federal Railroad Administration let them? Also a different question.

  • david vartanoff

    Of all of Metra’s lines the Electric is the easiest to return to rapid transit style operations. As pointed out in the article having riders tag fare readers on the platforms, cuts the responsibilities of the on board crew. As to getting the unions to agree a 2 man crew (engineer, conductor), one might look back to a CTA experience in the late 50s when the Evanston shuttle trains were 2 person crews. CTA offered retain 2 , cut service by half or OPTO with more frequent service meaning no layoffs. Clearly if MED went to more frequent (3 or 4 TPH) there would be jobs for all of the present ticket punchers and many could move up to engineer.

  • Maybe we can get some results if we get our acts together and contact the White House;

    Metra and CTA are in thrall to Stinky NE Illinois POLITICS (the RTA and CMAP too);

    I hope the POTUS in Washington D.C. sn’t controlled by them also!

  • It is my understanding that the bottle-neck in DC is that the House will not appropriate money for transit. It is my understanding that in Illinois we do not need a budget because we have a Republican governor. (That is meant to be a joke.)

    So my take is that in the short term, and why not in the long term, we begin turning to local sources for infrastructure. While I do not like how regressive sales taxes are, I still support the county’s idea for upping the sales tax for transit infrastructure. I see a lot of locals in other states passing local referendums to improve transit. I think we could do that here. As always imho.

  • It would be difficult to operate the MED with OPTO; the cab being on one side of the upper level precludes operators seeing the platforms at stations with canopies, or on the opposite side — and being able to control the doors (you cannot cross the Cab on a bi-level because of the end-door tunnel),

    And the MED would remain a CLASS I part of the National RR system (like Amtrak) and subject to those Rules, which I believe requires a minimum two person train crew.

  • WE (The City of Chicago) found 300 Million Dollars (with NO other Government help – correct me if I’m wrong), to Throw-down-a-Hole
    at Block 37.

    YOU CAN BET there is some slushy fund or account somewhere that could pay for it outright.

    How many undiscovered Barbara Byrd-Bennetts in Local Government do you think there are; you think she was the ONLY one?