Can the CTA and Metra Learn to Play Nice?

Benefits of increased cooperation could include fare integration and an alternative to the costly Red Line extension

Illustration: Bobby Sims, Chicago Reader
Illustration: Bobby Sims, Chicago Reader

[Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield publishes a weekly transportation column in the Chicago Reader. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog Chicago after it comes out online.]

On January 26 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CTA unveiled the route for the $2.3 billion extension of the Red Line from 95th Street to 130th Street, the big question was where the heck the money would come from. The city hopes to apply for $1 billion in federal grants for the project. However, the day before the announcement the White House infrastructure advisor stated that Donald Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure bill won’t include any new revenue, but it will involve cuts to transit funding.

For years transit experts and advocates have pushed for a much cheaper, quicker way to bring rapid transit to the far south side. The Metra Electric District route generally parallels the el route and makes many stops in the neighborhoods that would be served by the four Red Line extension stations. Previous estimates have put the cost of converting the MED to frequent service and integrating its fare system with the CTA at under $1 billion. Moreover, the new service could potentially boost transportation access for south siders sooner than the RLE, which wouldn’t be operational until 2026 at the earliest.

In 2016 Emanuel asked the Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the CTA, Metra, and Pace, to launch a conversation on the subject between the agencies. And, as I discussed in this column last week, the Obama Presidential Center plan has recently sparked new interest in rapid Electric service, since the line stops right by the future campus.

But one possible fly in the MED ointment would be the difficulty of coordinating the CTA and Metra on the conversion project. Like the RTA and Pace, each of these transit agencies has its own board of directors, and there’s a widespread view among transit advocates that the CTA and Metra operate in silos, and sometimes compete with each other for funding and riders.

Advocates argue that this separation and rivalry hurts regional transportation in other ways. For example, while you can transfer between CTA buses and trains, plus Pace buses, for a quarter, switching between CTA and Metra generally requires you to pay two full fares. As policy analyst Daniel Kay Hertz noted last year in Chicago Magazine this discourages residents from unlocking the full potential of our city’s 20 total transit rail lines.

So, is sibling rivalry between these sister agencies a real thing and, if so, how can we promote more brotherly love?

Like many parents with arguably unruly kids, the RTA doesn’t think there’s a problem. “We see a cooperative relationship,” said spokeswoman Susan Massel, noting that the CTA, Metra, and Pace collaborated with her organization on the regional transit strategic plan, approved in January. The document states that $30 billion is needed for underfunded transit infrastructure projects in the region, and Massel says all four agencies have committed to working together to lobby for a steady revenue stream of $2-3 billion for capital investments.

Likewise, CTA spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski and Metra spokesman Michael Gillis argued that cooperation between their organizations has never been stronger. They both noted that the agencies teamed up to offer alternative service during the 2013 south Red Line reconstruction, and they honor each other’s monthly passes during unplanned service disruptions.

The spokespeople added that the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor was created to connect the West Loop Metra stations to Michigan Avenue, and the new Union Station Transit Center eases transfers between CTA buses and Metra trains. They also asserted that the 2015 launch of the Ventra smartphone app, which lets CTA and Metra riders add value to their cards and permits Metra passengers to purchase tickets onboard without a surcharge, is proof that the region already has an integrated fare payment system.

Gillis added that increasing frequency on the Electric line while lowering fares to the CTA rate of $2.50 would be difficult “at a time when we are starved for capital dollars and are struggling to maintain our current level of service with our current operating subsidies.” Last summer’s Illinois budget deal included cuts in state funding for the CTA, Metra, and Pace. As a result all three systems raised fares this years and Metra reduced service on some line earlier this month.

CTA and Metra trains pass like two ships in the night. Photo: Bobby Gragg
CTA and Metra trains pass like two ships in the night. Photo: Bobby Gragg

But despite Massel, Hosinski, and Gillis’ assurances that the CTA and Metra get along swimmingly, representatives of all three major Chicago transportation advocacy groups

“There are well-documented and systemic governance and financing problems that make the lack of cooperation between transit agencies predictable,” said Active Transportation Alliance executive director Ron Burke. “From the slow journey to a universal fare card, funding decisions not tied to a strategic transit vision for the region, and the inability to convert the Metra Electric into a CTA-style service in Chicago, these shortcomings are a function of systemic problems.” Burke conceded that the situation has improved since 2013, when the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force released a report outlining these issues.

Center for Neighborhood Technology executive director Scott Bernstein noted that the CTA and Metra vie against each other for infrastructure grants from the federal transit administration. “They don’t lobby together and they don’t put in joint applications, so in what way could you say that they aren’t competing in that regard?”

Bernstein said he’d also like to see the RTA, the CTA, and Metra, which each have separate programs to promote transit-oriented development, join forces on this front, which could save money and attract more private-sector investments. He added that teamwork could help them confront the challenge of competition from ride-hailing services, which studies show are cannibalizing transit ridership. “Uber and Lyft are marketing themselves, but we don’t see a concerted marketing effort for public transportation. A couple of billboards along the Kennedy don’t cut it.”

Metropolitan Planning Council director Audrey Wennink noted that in some parts of the region the CTA and Metra compete for a larger cut of local sales tax revenue, as well as customers. In addition to the parallel Red Line and MED, the systems have stations near each other in Oak Park, Evanston, plus other locations, so often riders’ decisions are based on whether they want or need frequent and cheap service (the el) or shorter travel times (Metra.)

Wennink added that it’s understandable that the agencies are dragging their feet about pursuing real fare integration, as opposed to merely sharing the Ventra app. “If a rider who transfers from Metra to CTA only has to pay a small transfer fee and not the full CTA fare, as is the case now, who absorbs that loss in revenue?” she asked. “That said, further fare integration still is needed and the riders really want it. It’s a state requirement that’s not being fully met.”

But one thing the agencies and the advocates agree on is that much of the competition that does exist between the CTA and Metra is due to a factor beyond their direct control: the lack of adequate investment in transit. “The funding pie needs to be bigger so we are both adequately funded,” Gillis said.

Wennink added that to make this happen, Illinois lawmakers probably need to raise the state gas tax, which has been stuck at 19 cents a gallon since 1990, and/or vehicle registration fee. She said they should also consider long-term solutions like a distance-based driving tax, since the increasing popularity of hybrid and electric vehicles means that cars will be burning less gasoline in the future, and thus the gas tax will generate less revenue. “Ultimately, if the transit agencies were not so underfunded and not fighting for their lives, they might have more capacity to think creatively.”

  • Kevin Ngo

    Ideally I would like to see a merger between the CTA, Metra, and PACE into one regional zone based system. A system sort of like TfL in London. We would solve the issue of transferring between modes of transportation. You would just need to tap on and off whenever you board and alight from a train in order to calculate the proper fare.

    This would allow me to take a Metra Train from downtown, get off on the north side and then switch to a CTA train or bus. I could skip all the stops on the Red Line.

    For those commuting from further away that aren’t wealthy, we can create discounted fares for lower income people. Maybe we can setup a program similar to a commuter benefit program.

    Also, in regard to TODs. John, do you know what is stopping CTA or Metra from owning and developing properties around their stations? Public and Private transportation companies around the globe utilize real estate and value capture in order to increase revenue (and keep fares from rising too high). BrightLine and the Hong Kong MTR develop properties near their stations. They PANYNJ owns the World Trade Center.

  • vanshnookenraggen

    That was the idea behind the creation of the MTA in NYC by merging the failing commuter railroads with NYCT. It’s never really worked out and internally the MTA works the same way as CTA and METRA. So if you want to combine them you better do it better than we did.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t know if it is feasible for everyone alighting at Union and Ogilvie to tap off. Perhaps fares calculate automatically as if the person takes the train downtown, unless they tap off elsewhere?

  • F. Hayek 69

    Metra and CTA exist first and foremost to provide cushy, overpaid jobs to public unions, who in turn keep their politicians in power.

    Service is never a priority, and practicality and efficiency are toxic.

  • Cameron Puetz

    “Also, in regard to TODs. John, do you know what is stopping CTA or Metra from owning and developing properties around their stations? Public and Private transportation companies around the globe utilize real estate and value capture in order to increase revenue (and keep fares from rising too high)”

    Historically that’s how much of the CTA and Metra’s infrastructure was funded. The private railroads that built the system never made money running commuter trains. The fortunes of the railroad tycoons were built developing real estate that gained value when they provided train service to it. The railroads started loosing money when they ran out of land to develop.

  • mkyner

    The Electric District is isolated from the rest of the Metra system. How about taking Metra out of the equation entirely by transferring the Electric District and all associated equipment and personnel over to the CTA? The suburbs along the Electric District could then have the portion of their RTA sales tax that would have gone to Metra redirected to the CTA instead.

  • Kevin Ngo

    That could work also. I have never ridden Cal Train but I do know they use a tap on and off system. They could have many card readers downtown. No need for turnstiles.

  • Kevin Ngo

    Good thing to keep in mind. I did not know that part of the NYC transit history.

  • Tooscrapps

    I would say the biggest obstacle facing a Hong Kong style system is that in the United States, people (rightly or not) believe that sort of enterprise (developing, owning, managing property) should be left to the private sector.

    Do we want Gov’t agencies owning retail/office/rental units where the goal is profit-maximization? This is where I think PPP really only makes sense.

  • kastigar

    …create discounted fares for lower income people?

    Seniors Ride Free: We tried that. Blagoevich gave it to us, Quinn took it away.

  • ardecila

    This is complicated by political and union issues. South suburbs may be majority-Black but still may not want to fully join up with the city politically. Union-wise, Metra Electric workers are represented by railroading unions while CTA mechanics are represented by ATU. It’s a very significant culture difference that can’t just be hand-waved away.

    The mechanism usually proposed is for Metra to continue operating the line, but for CTA to reimburse Metra for the expense. Totally switching it over would take a lot of time and changes to state/Federal regulations.

  • ardecila

    I think the (weak) outcome of the “conversation” that Rahm spurred on a few years ago was the new Metra Electric schedule unveiled last summer, which does nothing for the majority of the South Side but IIRC provides near-rapid transit service to Hyde Park at most times of day.

  • Tooscrapps

    And rightly so. Not all seniors have lower incomes.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, in September Metra increased service between downtown and Hyde Park so that trains run every 20 minutes or so until 7 p.m. To facilitate this, the railroad cut nine trains from the electric Line’s Blue Island Branch and eight from the South Chicago branch, which serve lower-income communities, a change that community groups and the Active Transportation Alliance argued is inequitable.

  • It will be interesting to see, now that they’ve gone through all the trouble to jigger the schedule around, what effect the recent fare increase will have on Hyde Park ridership. “But it’s more expensive!” was a common refrain I heard back when the one-way fare was, like, not even three bucks.

  • Cameron Puetz

    “The mechanism usually proposed is for Metra to continue operating the line, but for CTA to reimburse Metra for the expense.”

    They’re both funded by the RTA. Why would we have the RTA give the CTA money to give to Metra? This kind of coordination should be coming from the RTA

  • Cameron Puetz

    Additionally many low income people are not seniors.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Pretty much every review of the RTA suggests merging the CTA, Pace, and Metra, but the politicians who appoint the boards don’t want to see any boards disappear.

  • Cameron Puetz

    There’s two big losses from lack of cooperation between the CTA and Metra. The first is the lost potential for multi-mode commutes. Metra commuting is really only realistic for jobs located within walking distance of a Metra station. When the cost of a CTA pass and Metra pass are added together, driving is often cheaper for suburban commuters. Areas like Lake Shore East and Streeterville could be well served by a Metra/CTA multi-mode commute, but are not served by Metra alone except for buildings that run shuttles. The CTA and Metra argue about who should get less of the fare from a multi-modal trip, but the reality is right now neither of them is getting the fares because from multi-modal commuters because the trips aren’t happening.

    The other big loss is the under utilization of Metra’s infrastructure. While the CTA looks for billions of dollars to extend the Red Line south, the underused Metra Electric tracks sit right there. While the CTA looks for $500 million to build the Belmont flyover to reduce Red and Brown line over crowding, the underused UP-N tracks run through many of the same neighborhoods. While the CTA presents no plans to relieve Blue Line overcrowding, the underused UP-NW tracks run adjacent. While rising rents push Logan Square residents west away from transit, the underused MD-W tracks sit right there, but provide the neighborhood with almost no service.

  • Cameron Puetz

    We did that with the creation of the RTA, but all we got was a board to park political appointees on.

  • CIAC

    You leave out the fact that Metra said a lot of those trains had extremely low ridership. In some cases, I think they said fewer than 10 PER TRAIN. It’s tough to see how cutting service to areas that don’t use it at times they are cutting it could possibly be described as inequitable.

  • CIAC

    ” While the CTA presents no plans to relieve Blue Line overcrowding, the underused UP-NW tracks run adjacent.”

    Here is the UP-NW schedule:
    https://metrarail.com/sites/default/files/metra_50933_fm20_tt_proof_up_nw.pdf

    Can you please point out where the under-utilization is during peak direction rush hour? That’s when Blue Line trains are overcrowded. By my count, there are trains that go through the area every ten to fifteen minutes or so during rush hour. That’s not under-utilization.

    ” While the CTA looks for $500 million to build the Belmont flyover to reduce Red and Brown line over crowding, the underused UP-N tracks run through many of the same neighborhoods”

    That’s just false. The UP-N line doesn’t go anywhere near the Red LIne. The two stations it has north of Belmont are both about two miles away. And there are plenty of trains that stop at those stations. Here, I’ll link to this schedule as well: https://metrarail.com/sites/default/files/metra_50933_fm10_tt_proof_up_n.pdf Lack of service to those stations is certainly not an issue. So your complaint is not correct. The Brown Line has nothing to do with the CTA’s upcoming construction project. The CTA expanded capacity on the Brown Line about 10 to fifteen years ago by reconstructing every single station (and then having to reconstruct the platforms all over again when they realized they didn’t do it right the first time, but that’s a separate issue).

    “While rising rents push Logan Square residents west away from transit, the underused MD-W tracks sit right there, but provide the neighborhood with almost no service”

    The MD-W tracks are nowhere near Logan Square. Perhaps you mean MD-N. But those tracks go through pretty sparsely populated areas so you can’t have CTA level train service there and have it be financially sustainable. I also don’t think it’s correct to say that there is “almost no service” on the Metra line to that area. It’s actually probably one of the most efficient ways to travel a significant distance in the city.

  • Cameron Puetz

    For the purpose of discussion I’m considering rush hour service as inbound trains arriving downtown between 7:00 am and 9:00 am.

    The UP-NW has 5 rush hour trains that stop at Irving Park and Jefferson Park. The gaps between these trains can be over 30 minutes. That’s not a meaningful level of rush hour service to reduce overcrowding. The UP-NW is a triple track, so local city trains could be added without degrading suburban express service. There aren’t as many trains running on the UP-NW (15 rush hour downtown arrivals) as there are on other triple track lines like the BNSF (25 rush hour downtown arrivals).

    The UP-N suffers from the same problem of many rush hour trains (4 of 11) expressing past the city stations, leading to approximately 20 minute rush hour headways. Unfortunately the UP-N is not triple tracked, so there’s less room to add city stops without impacting suburban service. As for the service area, the flyover was about adding capacity to both the Brown and Red Lines. Also many people ride an east/west buses and transfer to Red Line. If fare integration were worked out, these people would benefit from the Metra tracks being to the west.

    For both the UP-N and UP-NW infill stations would add to the potential for load shifting between Metra and CTA trains.

    For the discussion of Logan Square, I did mean the MD-N. Specifically I was looking at ways to add service to Humboldt Park and Hermosa. This line would require infill stations and more trains, but infill stations are among the cheapest ways to provide service to a new areas.

  • CIAC

    Your suggestion for the UP-N and UP-NW depends entirely on the premise that a very large number of people would switch from taking the CTA to the Metra if service on the Metra ran every eight to ten minutes or so instead of about twenty minutes or so at times. I don’t think that premise is correct at all. The people who want to take the Metra from these areas, and who pay significantly more than they would on the CTA for a faster commute, are willing to plan around the schedule a little bit. They might spend a few extra minutes at home with their kids or leave a little earlier than they otherwise would or spend some time making breakfast or getting coffee catching up on the news or on Facebook at their computer in order to time their morning with the train schedule. There’s about ten to fifteen minutes at most that they’d maybe have to change around what they were doing due to the fact that Metra trains don’t run as frequently as CTA trains. In the afternoon, this is even less of an issue. If someone has ten minutes to kill at work they’d easily find some way to spend this time. Or they may spend some time getting a snack picking up some items from the drugstore that they would have done later. I don’t think there are very many people who decide to take the CTA over Metra because they can get on a CTA train a little bit more often.

    There is only a fairly small portion of the ridership that in which Metra and CTA trains are roughly equally convenient in terms of where they are getting off and on in ration to where they are going. Not only do they have to live relatively near the Metra stations on the north side but they also have to work pretty close to the west loop Metra stations where they are getting off at. If either one of these is not true, such as if they work in the eastern part of the loop, they are not likely to even consider the Metra over the CTA. So there isn’t a lot of new ridership to capture by slightly increasing frequency of service.

  • Harvey Kahler

    Funny you should mention the potential for more use of the UPN and UPNW, and you could include the UPW, that the elevated lines now part of the CTA were built to compete with. In 1958 Ben Heinemann of the Chicago & North Western and Mayor Daley agreed to allow discontinuance of service and closure of numerous in-City stations competing with the CTA and hindering competition with expected reduced Interstate driving time from the suburbs. As part of the deal, commuter service would be moderrnized with air-conditioned push-pull trains at the railroad’s expense providing a premium level of service compared to the CTA. It’s important to note that the cost for high-capacity suburban push-pull trains was much lower per seat-mile while the Illinois Central Suburban (later Metra Electric) was comparable to CTA rail according to an IDoT Office of Reasearch & Developent study in the early 1970s. In the mid-’70s, and after Wisconsin trains were discontinued by Amtrak, the third track was deemed unnecessary and removed between Clybourn and Evanston on the North Line, sharply reducing capacity for future local service without impacting longer distance suburban commuting competing with driving.

    The Transit Riders’ Authority was one group that met with Metra to urge provision for a future restoration of a third track in the UPN bridge reconstruction project. What sealed the deal for a future third track was the failure of the plan to single-track operations for two-track reconstruction.

    The MDW is another case where service should be improved in a sector served only by CTA bus; and this should be oriented to O’Hare rather than end at Franklin Park while transfers can be made to trains to Elgin and beyond in the future.

    The truth is that most of these lines and downtown Chicago terminals are near capacity; and zone fares may be insufficient to cover the fixed and variable costs of adding local trains. Metra undertook a study of costs and fares last year; but I haven’t seen the results if it has been completed. In the meatime, fares were raised by $0.25 per zone travelled in response to falling sales tax revenue and loss of State funding.

    The problem with this expansion of service, as well as the issue of the Metra Electric, is that by the current State law, Metra gets no share of the Chicago retail sales tax impost and has no responsibility to to provide service, even to Downtown, except for the suburban demand!

  • Harvey Kahler

    Metra gets no sales tax impost revenue from the City. This is especially significant for the 32 Metra Electrc stations along the South Chicago and Blue Island lines in economically depressed neighborhoods where the one-way fare differential is significant in competing with the CTA and Pace.

    A CTA purchase of Metra services to South Chicago, Blue Island, and intermediate stations, a form of reimbursement, would be a neater way to coordinate service and alleviate Metra’s unfunded responsibility for service. These Metra services are in a death spiral that threatens transit infrastructure assets worth $-billions with discontinuance and abandonment after this five-year budget, hindering community renewal and Lakeside (South Works) redevelopment efforts.

    Purchase of service would add to the overall cost of CTA operations but be mitigated by a reduction in bus operations, fewer and shorter routes, as would a Red Line extension for which the shortfall in sales tax revenue is exacerbated. Another source of revenue needs to be found.

    Currently, Downtown is TIF-ed out and political real estate tax breaks insulate owners from general increases; but I wonder if increased funding for CTA and Metra might come through the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority with amendments to ordinances and legislation? This would rightfully shift some of the burden for transit funding away from the neighborhoods to the Downtown that shares the benefit.

    The higher CTA rail fare and transfer fee even drives customers to one-seat, base-fare, express bus services. The hourly cost for express buses is much higher than a combined bus-rail operation. This may be a necessary evil to divert demand on the North Side where the Red Line is near capacity, but not on the South Side.

  • Harvey Kahler

    The public transit properties that own and develop real estate often took title from private railroads as the price for escaping debt and operating losses. In other cases, the agency acquired the property for transit infrastructure improvement and recovered to cost in TOD. CTA did something similar with the Brown Line and proposed for the Belmont Flyover.

  • Harvey Kahler

    I think a CTA purchase of Metra Electric service to South Chicago and Blue Island could work with minimal cost for Metra, Ventra and proof of payment ticket vending. Tickets would allow Metra-style on-board inspection for valid date and destination zone. Power should be available at stations for installation of vending equipment.
    * Metra zone smart-phone app or one-way, all-day, assorted consecutive-day, and monthly tickets would be issued for connecting suburban destinations payable with Ventra, cash, or credit card. A suburban zone up-charge would be registered with the Ventra card.
    * CTA City-zone on-board proof of payment would be issued payable by Ventra card for registering transfers with other Pace or CTA services.
    * Vulnerable on-board cash fare collection would be eliminated.

    A maximum of eighteen trains with a conductor and engineer in the off-peak for 260 seats would be be less labor intensive than eighteen trains with only an engineer but with 39 stations and customer assistants or roughly 40 buses at 50% demand.

    Less frequent all-day base service could be implemented as soon as fare equipment can be installed and with the existing rolling stock fleet. Purchase of service with on-board fare inspection would not require difficult and costly isolation from University Park and NICTD trains as with the Gray Line proposal.

    While the Red Line to 95th still would compete with the Blue Island branch, it doesn’t provide convenient acces to many major South Side destinations or allow transfers to Metra Rock Island trains to Joliet or Electric trains to University Park, or to NICTD South Shore trains to South Bend.

    My vision is for an extension of SC and BI services under N Michigan and through Lincoln Park to Lawrence Avenue and west to Jefferson Park.
    * Some Red Line and LSD express bus ridership can be diverted and bus runs eliminated to allow other surface traffic capacity downtown.
    * Electric service would connect and augment service between more hotels with McCormick Place, Soldier Field, and more museums.
    * The extension to Jefferson Park would faciltate a crosstown short-cut from the North Side to O’Hare and connections with the Red Line, UPNW and UPN to Lincoln Park, North Michigan Avenue, and other lakefront destinations. Lincoln Park would be significant for Air & Water and Pride Parade crowds.

  • Harvey Kahler

    I would like to see a merger too; but political turf may be too hard to overcome with the authority of each for contracting and spending big money.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

South Side Groups: Make the Metra Electric Run Like the CTA ‘L’

|
A dozen neighborhood organizations, along with the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, are calling for the Metra Electric line, with its three branches that run through several South Side communities, to operate like a CTA ‘L’ line. The fourteen organizations signed a letter to the editor of the Chicago Maroon, the independent […]