Metra’s Underwhelming Strategic Plan Reflects the System’s Funding Shortfall

Unless you're in Hyde Park, you can expect to wait a long time for the next Metra Electric District train. Photo by Chad Kainz
Unless you're in Hyde Park, you can expect to wait a long time for the next Metra Electric District train. Photo by Chad Kainz

Metra released its first-ever strategic plan last month, after beginning the process in 2012, and comments are due tomorrow. The plan, and Metra’s press release announcing it, don’t spare any details about the impact that years of underfunding have had on the commuter rail system. CTA and Pace are in the same boat, being without sufficient local or state funding to increase service levels.

It’s tempting to call out Metra for not setting a goal of providing all-day frequent service throughout the system, instead of simply focusing on rush-hour downtown commutes. But it’s not their fault that the plan doesn’t include this strategy..

It seems that Metra CEO Don Orseno, who will soon be retiring from the job, read my mind. He’s quoted in the press release as saying, “I want to caution that the plan may be less ambitious than expected. That is a result of our chronic funding shortfalls, which severely limit our ability to improve the agency.”

Asked about the plan’s lack of goals on potentially providing more service, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said, “At this point we are not receiving enough funding to maintain our existing level of service and existing infrastructure, let alone expand either.”

What is Metra doing about the funding shortfall? Gillis said that they are applying for “whatever funding is available… [Orseno] is in Washington, D.C., today, in fact, to meet with federal representatives.” Metra recently won a $14 million discretionary grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to rebuild a bridge over the Fox River in the far western suburbs. They also won  a $21 million federal grant for Positive Train Control, a federally mandated safety system that automatically stops a train to prevent a crash in the event that the operator fails to do so. In addition, Metra an “Invest in Cook” grant from Cook County to renovate the 147th Street station on the Metra Electric District’s University Park branch.

The strategic plan isn’t just about how to deal with insufficient funding. There are sections about how Metra wants to maintain its low passenger and personnel injury rates, strive for 95 percent on-time performance, update stations to have better wayfinding and real-time travel information, and retrain personnel to better accommodate passengers with disabilities.

One key thing Metra could do to improve service is to offer a discount for customers transferring to the system from a ride on another transit agency’s train or bus, which could boost their ridership. The strategic plan says that Metra will “examine our fare structure to identify improvements with potential to increase ridership and revenue.” The transfer discount, however, is something Metra would have to negotiate with CTA and Pace to accomplish, as well as figure out who would get less money.

The plan includes only one strategy for improving service patterns for current and potentially new riders. Metra will conduct a “Station Optimization Study,” which could result in changes to where and how train service operates. The report, Gillis said, will use an analysis of station characteristics and performance to “develop strategies to optimize investment in existing and future stations.” The study will include “action plans for attracting riders to underperforming stations.”

The station study could have one more significant effect: it might recommend that some stations be consolidated or closed. The study’s outcomes have the objective of improving “the quality of service and facilities experienced by Metra riders, while maintaining or reducing costs,” Gillis said.

In the past, Metra has been able to pay for track upgrades, station rehabs, new train cars, and other expenditures for vehicles and fixed objects via state capital bills. However, the state government hasn’t provided a shot in the arm to Metra through a capital bill since the “Illinois Jobs Now!” legislation passed in 2009. These bills aren’t necessarily a responsible way to fund infrastructure, as they include large amounts of borrowing with unreliable payback mechanisms, such as video gambling, and pass the buck to future generations of residents. But they have definitely benefited Chicago’s three transit operators by providing capital cash infusions.

The plan notes that there’s a widely held misconception that Metra is “profitable” and that “fares cover most of costs.” Gillis told me, “We answer emails from customers on a weekly basis in which we have to explain that fares cover only part of our operating costs and virtually none of our capital needs.”

Locally, Metra’s, CTA’s, and Pace’s daily operations are largely funded by a portion of the sales tax on goods sold in the six-county region. The state kicks in additional operations funding, but since Bruce Rauner became governor those payments have been delayed. Metra was also supposed to get $1.1 billion in capital funds from “Illinois Jobs Now!” but the state government notified Metra this year that it will receive $265 million less than that by the time the program is over.

A couple of years ago, additional local funding was proposed at the Cook County level by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance. The Metropolitan Planning Council has been lobbying state legislators to fund more operations, narrowing its focus on getting more money for maintenance.

Asked if Metra expects state leaders to pass a new capital bill within the 2018-2022 timeframe of the strategic plan, Gillis said, “We are certainly hopeful that they will.”

What’s currently in the pipeline at Metra? Right now the transit agency is renovating several stations. A new Maywood station house opened last month; the Healy, Calumet, and Romeoville stations are undergoing major renovations, with Hazel Crest coming soon; and that they may start work at three more stations in 2018. “We should be doing many more each year,” Gillis said, but he added that the money for additional renovations isn’t there.

Both Metra and Pace intend to raise fares at their November board meetings.

Updated at 21:19: Corrected to say that Metra had already won the three grants. 

  • craterlet

    I understand the argument that they are making here: let’s fix what we have before we talk about changes or expansions. However, many of the changes that they should implement would actually help them manage their costs!
    * Moving to a proof-of-payment fare regime would allow them to lower their labor costs or keep them steady as they increase service.
    * Electrification would reduce O&M costs (fuel) at the expense of increasing capital costs.
    * Getting an FRA waiver to buy off-the-shelf European or Japanese train sets would reduce capital costs for rolling stock while improving performance.

    There are also thing that they should do that wouldn’t generate savings:
    * Make level boarding a focus system-wide.
    * Work on through-running trains downtown.

    A week or two ago, there was an online discussion linked to in the daily headlines post about what would be the biggest improvement in public transit in the region. Many people talked about the circle line, Brown line extension to Jeff Park, etc. In my opinion, Metra developing the will and funding to transform itself from a “railroad” to a S-Bahn-style transit operation could have a more radical impact on the region than any other single project.

  • Tooscrapps

    Meanwhile the Tollway is spending billions on suburban widening campaigns. I get that tolls should go back into the system first, but at what point does the expansion stop?

    We need to change the legislation and allow a portion of the tolls need to start going into Metra.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Even a limited transition to a S-Bahn style system focusing on areas where it’s easier and in demand would have huge benefits. The Metra Electric already has the infrastructure and doesn’t share tracks with freight trains. It’s just a matter of service frequency and fare structures. Having that level of service would be a huge boon to Hyde Park and South Shore. The UP-N and UP-NW don’t have significant freight traffic until well outside of the city. Adding stations and S-Bahn levels of service to the inner potions of these lines could help relieve crowding the on the Red, Purple, and Blue Lines.

  • rwy

    In New York, doesn’t the MTA use tolls from it’s bridges and tunnels to fund public transit?

  • Tooscrapps

    Yah, but that’s because the MTA runs the public transit too. Pretty sure the Illinois Tollway Authority is only mandated to spend on tollways.

  • I totally agree. The Illinois Tollway is only allowed to do one thing (build highways), and when you’ve got a funding source, then you’re gonna do that one thing and do it as long as you still earn money.

  • I didn’t call it an S-Bahn-style transit operation, but that’s what I mean when I say “providing all-day frequent service throughout the system, instead of simply focusing on rush-hour downtown commutes”.

    This “style” of transit operation is also known as RER, after the train of the same name in the Paris region, which means “regional express rail”.

  • planetshwoop

    It’s fairly well documented that Illinois has too many bodies doing similar things. No doubt it would be better for the region if PACE, RTA, CTA, Metra, Tollway Authority, South Shore etc could be reduced into a smaller single body. It’s likely the resource sharing would be a significant benefit.

  • Anne A

    One of the issues I’ve seen on the Rock Island for a while is effective reduction of service without reducing the schedule. They keep cutting the number of open cars on off-peak trains to the point where availability of space on accessible cars is a real problem.

    On recent weekends, I’ve been on trains at various times in the morning and afternoon where only a single car was open. The worst case was a morning train where I and another cyclist had to compete for space with several people who had very large suitcases. That was a very crowded train.

    They have their trainsets configured so that one accessible car is at either end of the train. This means that, unless all cars are open (rare except at rush hour), there is only one accessible car open. Disabled people, cyclists, people with large suitcases and people with strollers are all competing for that limited space on one car.

    I understand that saving $$ through lower fuel costs (not running ventilation and lights on additional cars) is a factor, but my cynical side wonders if making trips more crowded and unpleasant is intended to drive ridership down on certain runs so they can use this as justification to cut those runs.

    I have to wonder how many people have given up on taking the Rock Island for off-peak trips because the ride is increasingly loud and unpleasant, going to CTA or car instead. If I’m going to 35th St. as I was last weekend, the Metra ride is very fast (15 minutes vs. 45+ to ride to the red line then take the train north), but much less pleasant than it was a year ago. To get my bike on the train, I usually ride 1-2 miles south of home to get on the train earlier when it’s less crowded. If I didn’t have a monthly pass for my commute, I’d probably skip it in favor of CTA.

  • D V May

    Extending the sales tax to most retail services would generate as much as $100 million annually in new revenue for Metra.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Hear, hear. An additional stop in central Lake View would be massively popular, as at Ravenswood you’re a solid mile from the Red/Purple/Brown stops.

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