Chicago-Area Transit Chiefs Talk About the Future of Regional Transportation

Dorval Carter, Leanne Redden, Jim Derwinski, T.J. Ross, and Audrey Wennink. Photo: MPC
Dorval Carter, Leanne Redden, Jim Derwinski, T.J. Ross, and Audrey Wennink. Photo: MPC

The heads of the Chicago area’s four transit agencies all agree: The biggest challenge facing our region’s public transportation system is funding. Due to deferred maintenance caused by revenue shortfalls, our regional transit infrastructure needs an estimated $2-3 billion per year over the next decade to return it to a state of good repair. Money for operations to maintain frequent and reliable service is also in short supply.

Today Regional Transportation Authority president Leanne Redden, CTA president Dorval Carter, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski, and Pace director T.J. Ross discussed the issue at a roundtable hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Council. MPC director of transportation Audrey Wennink moderated the forum.

Wennink began the conversation by noting that an MPC analysis of the CTA and Metra Twitter feeds (Pace has a less active presence on social media) found that each system has an average of six-to-seven delays per day related to infrastructure issues. Over half of CTA delays, and almost two-third of Metra holdups, are caused by infrastructure problems, she said.

During the transit chiefs’ opening remarks, RTA’s Redden argued that the current regional transit funding structure is not sustainable. She noted that if a revenue source could be found to cover the $2-3 billion needed annually for upgrades, “this [would not be] a handout, this delivers return-on-investment that drives the state economy.”

Pace’s Ross noted that the suburban bus system has had to make due without a capital program for the past decade. “We’re at the end of the road,” he said, adding that more investment would help make the regional public transportation system safer, faster, and more reliable.

The CTA’s Carter touted the $8 billion in capital improvements to Chicago’s bus and rail system made under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He noted that Chicago passed a transit tax-increment financing district to fund the impending overhaul of the North Red Line, as well as a tax on ride-hailing trips to fund CTA infrastructure. But when it comes to financing strategies, he said, “we’re running out of rabbits to pull out of the hat.”

“We’ve had to find innovative ways to do a lot with a little,” echoed Metra’s Derwinski. While finding $2.3 billion annually to get the regional transit system back up to speed may seem daunting, he noted that we really need more money than that to grow the system, as the car-dependent status quo becomes increasingly unsustainable.

Next Wennink mentioned that a funding package for transportation may be advanced in Springfield next year. “How can we show legislators that the funds will be used to truly modernize and innovate the system?” she asked the panelists.

Derwinski pointed to Metra’s plans to upgrade to cars with more seats in order to transport more passengers in a system where the tracks, rail yards, and downtown depots have limited capacity (although he acknowledged that the cars from the railroad’s most recent rolling stock purchase have pros and cons.) He added that recent locomotive upgrades have resulted in a mere six mechanical delays last year among 90,000 runs by those trains. “When you invest in the right technology and use innovation, you’re going to get a return on investment.”

Carter mentioned the CTA’s recent technological accomplishments such as Bus Tracker and Rail Tracker, plus next-stop bus info and automated station info on trains, as well as plans for future improvements to railcars, as evidence that his agency is using funds wisely. He also noted that the transit authority recently built architecturally significant stations at Washington-Wabash in the Loop and Wilson in Uptown.

Ross noted that, to some extent, fare integration has come to the three transit networks via the Ventra payment system, which is a sign of progress. He added that other modes such as paratransit, bike-share, and even station parking should be integrated into the system, and there should also be more emphasis on employers offering transit as a pre-tax benefit on employees’ payroll checks.

Wennink asked the transit chiefs how they plan to promote transit-oriented development and use stations for placemaking, creating safe and vibrant areas. Derwinski credited the village of Glenview with helping to turn the area around the local Metra station into a lively retail and housing hub. Carter pointed again to the Wilson station, which will be getting the Chicago Co-op grocery store, as an example of a CTA stop rehab that’s providing more than just transit access to the community, and noted that planned Garfield and Cottage Grove station rehabs will also be creating new community spaces.

Ross said that express bus service in Barrington will have a positive effect on development in the area. And Redden noted that the Chicago region needs to get serious about value capture, taking revenue from increased real estate values around new stations and investing them back into the system.

Later in the discussion Wennink asked the agency heads about how they plan to deal with the challenge presented by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, whose use has spiked while transit ridership has recently declined. Derwinski said the services have had a mostly beneficial impact on Metra ridership in the suburbs, where they serve as a useful “last mile” solution.

However, Carter jokingly called the relationship between ride-hailing and the CTA “complicated.” “We have to find a way to coexist,” he noted, adding that when the ‘L’ system melts down, Uber and Lyft aren’t able to pick up the slack because they don’t have the capacity of rail cars, and a swarm of ride-hailing vehicles results in gridlock. “We have to decide what kind of community we want… What are the rules for playing in the sandbox?”

When Wennink asked about plans to convert fleets to alternative fuels and electric, Ross reported that Pace is converting many of its buses to low-emission compressed natural gas. He said the choice between CNG and electric is a tough one. “Electric buses need to lose some weight – they’re pretty heavy and expensive.”

CNG_bus_at_stop
A Pace compressed natural gas bus. Photo: Pace

Finally the panelist were asked what aspects of the future of transit in the region they’re most excited about. “We can’t budget and plan these great projects and great innovations, and grow the system if we can’t actually see the money continually coming in,” Derwinski said. But he noted that peer cities have recently passed taxes to fund transit, and he’s optimistic that there will be leadership in our region to do the same. “If you look at what’s happening now, everything’s pointing toward [the fact that] a solution has to come.”

Carter said he’s excited about the benefits that improvements to transit can have for communities, especially projects like the south Red Line extension that will help “communities that are in desperate need for more investment.”

“I think we’re in an excellent position to make it a faster [regional transit] system,” said Ross, who has previously outlined Pace’s efforts to implement transit-friendly traffic signals and bus rapid transit-like service. Combined with improved safety and reliability, “if we do that, we’re going to have more riders than we know what to do with.”

Redden said that she was heartened by the resiliency of the Chicago region, which has a strong economy, a growing job base, and an impressive talent pool. But she noted that we have a broke state government, and an administration in Washington that, despite rhetoric about an infrastructure package, has been pulling away from investing in infrastructure. Therefore, she said, we need to follow the example of cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta and take the matter of funding transit “into our own hands.”

Watch a video of the forum here. 

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  • Jeremy

    Thank you for writing this. I think there are two hurdles with increasing funding. 1. People in southern and western Illinois don’t want to pay for improvements that will largely go to Cook and the collar counties. 2. People that don’t use the system don’t want to pay for improvements they won’t use.

    Chicago and suburban governments need to make a persuasive, consistent appeal for how the entire state benefits economically from improved, efficient transit infrastructure.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Jeremy’s comment is simply put … and also spot-on. However, I must say that I for one am not optimistic about Chicago and suburban governments persuading downstate people/politicians that (much larger) investments in NE IL will benefit everyone — in downstate IL and around the country. Now, more than ever, in our divided society, cooperation/compromise seems unlikely. The situation Jeremy describes is a part / manifestation of the urban-rural divide that exists across our country. While the population of urbanized areas (i.e. urban, suburban, and exurban areas) is greater than rural population (see this interesting map analysis: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/), rural areas have an inequitably large amount of political power, and political power is what controls funding. Basically, we need to re-structure government to reflect demographic realities and to address the problems we face (in transportation, housing, healthcare, the environment and other realms) at the scale at which these problems exist. Without this, we will continue along a destructive path where a few win and many many loose.

  • Tooscrapps

    For the suburban commuter-drivers that complain about funding Metra, I simply ask them how would they like 100K more cars on the roads during their day. As blunt as it is, it usually gets the point across pretty well.

  • Tooscrapps

    Doesn’t seem like they addressed any tough topics:
    Fare integration?
    Better utilization of Metra stations within Chicago?
    Red Line/ME duplication?
    Their agencies silence whenever a IDOT or the Tollway pushes for road expansion?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It was a 1.5-hour conversation, so I didn’t include every topic that was covered, but there was more discussion of fare integration (briefly mentioned in my writeup), as well as South Shore/MED/Red Line duplication. Derwinski noted, “We don’t want to see transit lines competing against each other — it should be win-win-win.”

    I recommend taking some time to watch the video of the entire forum:

  • Cameron Puetz

    The RTA’s funding system is so unbelievably stupid. Despite only having taxing authority in Cook and the Collar counties, the RTA still needs approval from the legislature to raise money. Effectively downstate has been given control over budgets that are entirely funded from taxes in Cook and the collar counties.

    It’s not downstate’s money, and it’s not a system they care about. Why were they ever given control?

  • Tooscrapps

    Thanks. I figured Red Line/MED would have been a larger issue. Carter touting the Red Line extension without either agencies (or both together) doing a real analysis of beefing up MED service rings hollow to me. Of course it would hinge on some real fare integration, aside from being able to pay for one or the other through Ventra.

  • Jeremy Glover

    Well, 77 of 118 House districts and 39 of 59 Senate districts are within the RTA service area. So theoretically, they wouldn’t need support from any legislators beyond the collar counties to pass legislation.

  • CIAC

    You are really talking about fare reductions on Metra, right? At least within the city. Why not just say that instead of using the misleading phrase “fare integration” that makes it seem like you are discussing something that’s revenue neutral?

  • CIAC

    Yeah, it’s similar to when the legislature votes on statewide laws that are already in effect in certain places. For example, fifteen years ago or so Chicago passed a smoking ban for bars and restaurants. A few years later the whole state decided to do the same thing. When the state passed that law all the legislators in Chicago were voting on something that had no effect on their constituents because the area they represented already had it in place. In effect, they were telling the rest of the state what to do. I think the nice thing for them to have done was to not vote or vote present on the law and let the legislatures who it would have actually affected vote on the law.

  • Cameron Puetz

    When you’re talking about an area covered by a patchwork of transit site agencies, transfers are the most important part of fare integration.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The two situations would really only be comparable if the smoking ban had included an exception for Chicago. The fact that Chicago has more restrictive local laws doesn’t exempt Chicago residents from state law.

    RTA taxes don’t apply to downstate residents. Despite the taxes specifically targeting only certain countries, all legislators vote on them.

  • CIAC

    And would it be alright if that were revenue neutral? For example, some deal is worked out between Metra and the CTA where Metra rides cost a little more than now and CTA rides, from a Metra trip, cost less (or vice versa, or whatever it may be) but the total cost of fares from all passengers remain the same?

  • CIAC

    This particular state law might technically apply to Chicago. But if the law didn’t pass each of its major components would still be in effect in Chicago. So for all practical purposes, it was a law that was passed that had no effect on the city. The Chicago state legislators could easily vote for something without considering how its restrictions affect the people it applies to because nothing about it changed anything for their constituents. Essentially, they were just deciding the issue for the rest of the state. There might have been a few minor variations between the state law and the city ordinance that did a few small things. So technically, it might not have left everything in the city completely unaffected. But that doesn’t change the reality that everything of significance in Chicago was going to be the same whether the state law passed on not.

  • My name is Mike Payne — I am/was the Author of the CTA Gray Line Project.

    I have since moved to Phoenix, AZ — as I got tired of wasting my time, money, and efforts trying to improve the South Side Transit situation back in Chicago

  • BlueFairlane

    Basically, we need to re-structure government to reflect demographic realities …

    While what you say is true, the rural-urban divide has been with us since well before we were a nation and was a driving part of every conflict since the Revolution. The structure of government that perpetuates this was baked into the Constitution, and in order to change it, you’d have to pass a number of Constitutional amendments. That requires not only a cooperative Congress to pass the amendment, but also 38 willing state legislatures to ratify the amendment. And when the majority of states are rural, you can see the problem.

    Urban centers, where an increasing majority of the population lives, are Constitutionally at the mercy of rural areas, and demographic shifts will only increase that. There’s no getting around it. As intransigent as downstate might seem, if anything’s going to change, we’re going to have to convince them that we’re in this together. We’re going to have to change the way we advocate. We’re going to have to change the way we vote.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sorry to hear you’ve left the Chicago transportation advocacy scene Mike, but thanks for your efforts, and I hope you enjoy your new home.

    Earlier this year Mike testified at a CTA board meeting calling for improving service on the Metra Electric District line as an alternative to widening roads by the Obama Center. https://chi.streetsblog.org/2018/01/17/mike-payne-lets-improve-rail-access-to-the-obama-center-instead-of-widening-roads/

  • craterlet

    It won’t be revenue neutral, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Metra fares should come down in the city and they should have transfers to/from CTA/PACE. Treating the 3 systems as 1 system is the only way to significantly increase ridership and transform the region.

  • craterlet

    We can always dream of state-wide proportional representation….

  • david vartanoff

    On rider friendly fare integration, they all hid behind lack of funding. The use of the ‘open system’ descriptor for RTA is obsolete. Caltrain uses the Bay Area clone of Ventra to collect fares with random on board checking. Metra could implement that by planting readers on each platform as Caltrain did. Once that is done, a Ventra card loaded w/a CTA pass could be honored on the MED within CTA’s service territory by very simple software. Because Ventra logs every ride, CTA could easily be billed a charge for each ride. The major impediment is turf protection.

  • CIAC

    Why do you think decreasing Metra fares in the city would “transform the region”? Just about trip on Metra within the city of Chicago has very convenient alternatives on the CTA. So lowering fares on Metra wouldn’t even generate very many new transit riders at all. It may significantly increase riders on Metra but the vast majority of them would otherwise have used the CTA. And many Metra lines(I realize this isn’t true with the Metra Electric) are already at capacity during rush hour So when you lower fares for city residents in means there isn’t room for those traveling longer distances and the trains are, therefore, less efficient. I don’t understand your “transform the region” prediction.

    There has been quite a lot of talk about “fare integration” and other similar terms for quite a long period of time. The reality is that they are really talking about fare decreases for Metra but just dressing it up in language that sounds like its an easier thing to do.

  • CIAC

    No. As I discussed below the people who have been pushing for “fare integration” aren’t really concerned very much about whether they are using one form or two forms of payment on two different transit systems. It’s really about price. They want Metra to come down to CTA prices or at least become cheaper in some way. They are using a term like this to act as if it’s just a matter of mechanics rather than pricing and the revenue effects of that. If people would be paying the same fares, why in the world would they care so much about whether can use the same payment system on both lines?

  • david vartanoff

    Nice to hear Dorval talk about ADA. Where is that component of Belmont on the Blue? Because once it is “complete” w/o accessibility it will be at the bottom of the line for the next rehab cycle.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Convenience and limitations related to pre-tax transit deductions from your paycheck seem important, similar to how Ventra/Chicago Card are vastly preferable to the old fishbowls that people deposited bus fare into & CTA bus drivers had to eyeball to count.

  • david vartanoff

    So despite nice talk about not building competing lines, when it came to the Red X v improving service to Hegewisch, the give money to vendors who are politically connected policy won out over easier to implement at lower cost sooner. Why am I surprised?

  • david vartanoff

    You are correct that I want Metra fares within CTA’s service area reduced to be the same. The whole point of taxpayer support of transit regardless of mode is to provide ALL citizens/residents/tourists maximum freedom of mobility–kind of like paving sidewalks and streets.
    Fares have relatively little relationship to actual cost of service. We choose to have a flat fare within CTA’s territory without relationship to distance. Thus a trip from Howard to 95th is the same as a short crosstown trip on say the Addison bus. We know that carrying one person the entire length of the Red Line incurs more future maintenance costs than the (say) 20 block trip across Addison, yet we don’t charge extra. So why should .someone needing a combination of MED and a CTA bus for a trip pay extra when a Red Line + bus is cheaper?

  • david vartanoff

    see my reply above.

  • david vartanoff

    yes! without distinction based on 100 year obsolete previous corporate structures.

  • david vartanoff

    no dressing up. Straightforward policy objective. And, as you point out MED is woefully underused. The entire daily ridership from my home station in the 60s is less than the number of riders boarding a single train back then. (Bryn Mawr)
    Likewise, Ridership is pretty low on the RI Suburban Division yet being able to use it would relieve some crowding on the Red Line.
    As I said elsewhere, the object is maximum travel freedom which means more choices without fare penalty.

  • CIAC

    There’s crowding on the southern half of the Red Line? I don’t think so.

  • david vartanoff

    If Derwinski is serious, he should press for MED operations to Hegewisch.

  • david vartanoff

    Major cost of MED includes more crew than necessary for safe operation. Relieving the on board crew of fare collection should mean cutting the assistant conductor position. Those employees should be the ones needed to implement better frequencies and the extension to Hegewisch.

  • CIAC

    I don’t see why your suggestion would provide “maximum freedom of mobility” more than the current system. All trips on Metra lines within the city have easy and (usually) convenient alternatives within the CTA system. So lowering these Metra fares wouldn’t provide options for this price that didn’t exist before. It would just provide options that, in some cases, may be a little more convenient that options that already existed for this price. The result would almost entirely simply be encouraging people who use the CTA to use Metra instead. There would be almost no increase in transit ridership, there would just be people substituting one transit service for another. And they would be going from a service that is funded partially by sales tax dollars in the city to a service whose operating costs are funded only from sales tax dollars from the suburbs (along with fares, which would now be lower for city riders. It doesn’t make sense.

    And it will without question lower the overall amount of revenue that goes into both systems. Metra is charging lower fares and the CTA has lost riders to Metra. So both agencies will have to cut service and/or raise fares to make up for this. What’s your suggestion for that? What service should be cut? Should the service that would lose this ridership because of movements to Metra be cut? Or should it be elsewhere? Or is a higher overall CTA fare worth it for this? Would a 50 cent increase to implement this change be a good idea? I really don’t think so because this is a situation where you aren’t really providing any new service in return. And the service you’re making cheaper involves transit riders who already have good alternatives. It’s not even close to the first thing that should be thought of to improve the system.

  • CIAC

    From my observations the half-dozen or so times I’ve taken the Metra Electric in the last few years is that there already is no need for more than one conductor on most trains. I was actually surprised by the fact that these trains were so overstaffed. You can get rid of these employees now. You don’t have to wait for some type of new fare system. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend the money saved with this towards expanding service on the line in the system that is at least capacity and has had the most declining ridership in recent years.

  • BlueFairlane

    We can dream of anything. What can we achieve?

  • craterlet

    I guess I should have made clear that fare/system integration is only step one in a process that transforms Metra along a RER/S-Bahn model (which Toronto is starting to do). In other words, it wouldn’t just be lowering fares, but also dramatically increasing service.

    As for the CTA alternatives, there isn’t one for me personally. I’m on the northwest side along the MD-W line. The Green and Blue lines are pretty far away.

  • david vartanoff

    There is crowding on the 95th St crosstown which feeds the Red Line. If some of those riders heading to the Red Line could use the RI or MED at no fare penalty why wouldn’t they assuming a similar downtown destination or need to use a crosstown bus accessible from either train line.? As always I start from a belief in more and better connectivity.

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