Pace 2020 budget calls for service cuts, transit terminal improvements

Route 570 bus at Fox Lake's Lakeside Plaza, the transfer point with Route 806. Route 806 would be eliminated under the proposed 2020 Pace budget, while Route 570 would lose Saturday service. Photo: Igor Studenkov
Route 570 bus at Fox Lake's Lakeside Plaza, the transfer point with Route 806. Route 806 would be eliminated under the proposed 2020 Pace budget, while Route 570 would lose Saturday service. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The good news about Pace’s 2020 budget is that the suburban bus system isn’t planning on raising fares, and it’s planning to invest new funding from the Rebuild Illinois capital bill into expanding capacity, adding bus real-time arrival information displays and improving two major transit hubs in southwest-suburban Joliet and south-suburban Harvey.

But, like last year, Pace plans to reduce service, cutting Saturday service on three routes and eliminating five routes altogether. The cuts follow a similar pattern as this year’s budget, with the majority of the cuts affecting evening commuter service and routes serving further-flung parts of Chicagoland. And, this time around, several of those routes serve hospitals, educational institutions and social service providers, potentially hurting transit-dependent population in areas that don’t have much public transit to begin with.

Pace is holding several public hearings in Chicago and the suburbs. The transit agency’s board is expected to approve the final budget during its November 13 meeting. If this year’s service cuts were any indication, some routes would be cut at the start of next year, while other cuts and service reductions would kick in further down the line.

As the budget noted, Pace’s overall ridership has been declining over the last four years, and it expects the trend to continue in 2020. While the document notes that the transit agency isn’t raising fares, it outlines plans to use “administrative expense reductions and the restructuring of poor performing service” to facilitate that. The cuts are also used to help fund the recent service expansion.

The budget for 2020 includes proposed service reductions to partially offset service added in 2019 and 2020, including the implementation of the Pulse Milwaukee Line and additional service to ease overcrowding on I-55,” it stated.

Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken previously told me that the transit agency service monitors four performance metrics: “productivity or passengers per revenue hour, operating subsidy per rider, farebox recovery ratio, and operating subsidy per vehicle mile.” If at least two of those four indicators drop, Pace looks at whether to restructure, reduce or eliminate the route.

In response to questions about the cuts in the 2020 budget, Daly Skogsbakken said that this means that this means keeping routes that have lower ridership than the ones on the chopping block. For example, Route 540 has 53 average daily riders, while Route 665 has 33, but it has Route 665 has other factors working in its favor.

“From a performance standpoint, Route 665 performs slightly better than Route 540,” Daly Skogsbakken said. “Route 540 does not meet three of our performance measures, while Route 665 only has two performance measures not being met.”

Further reductions to McHenry County Service

Out of the six counties that make up the Regional Transportation Authority’s service area, McHenry County has less transit service than the rest of the region.  While most Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line rains go as far as Crystal Lake, only around a third of them continue to Woodstock and Harvard, and service to the city of McHenry is rush hour only. On January 18, Pace eliminated Route 809, bringing the number of McHenry County routes from five to four. McHenry County does operate McRide dial-a-ride service, but its base fares are higher than Pace’s, and they go up if the trip is longer than five miles.

Route 806 is a rush hour service that links together three Metra stations – the Union Pacific Northwest Line’s Crystal Lake and McHenry stations and Milwaukee District North Line’s Fox Lake station.  Unlike some other rush hour services, such as the aforementioned Route 809, the buses travel in both directions in both mornings and evenings. This provides an alternative for those who, for example, want to get to the city of McHenry in the morning and return to Crystal Lake or Fox Lake in the evening.

The route also connects to  Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital and social service providers such as the Pioneer Center. And it provides the only transit service to the village of Johnsburg.

While Route 806’s numbers aren’t in the single digits the way Route 809’s were, they are still low enough for the line to be placed on the bottom 10 routes (if one excludes on-demand services and seasonal shuttles). Since 2016, Route 809 never went above about 30 riders. It should also be noted that the route wasn’t running between March 2004 and January 2013 – and, since the routes were relaunched, the averages were lower than before.

Daly Skogsbakken said that Pace let McHenry Hospital know about the route’s proposed elimination. While the transit agency doesn’t have the numbers on how many riders take Route 806 to the hospital, based on the overall ridership numbers, Pace expects the impact to be “very low.”

Sam Tenuto, the co-CEO of Pioneer Center, said that Route 806 benefits two populations his organization serves — adults with developmental disabilities and homeless individuals using their recently built shelter.

“[Adults with developmental disabilities] come to our center to take part in Pioneer vocational development program, and some of those people use that route,” he said. “They don’t drive on their own, so they absolutely need that to come out.”

Tenuto said that he didn’t find out about the route’s potential elimination until it was reported on by local media. He said Pioneer Center has already submitted a public comment urging Pace to keep Route 806, and they plan to attend the Oct. 28 McHenry County public hearing and any other hearings that may come up to press their case.

Commuter Shuttles

Several of the routes that were shut down this year were commuter shuttles geared toward BNSF Metra Line riders. Daly Skogsbakken previously told me that changes in commuting patterns and “irregular workdays” hurt the ridership on this type of routes. And, as it has been pointed out in the comments last year, BNSF Line’s service hasn’t been reliable, and Metra adjusted the schedule several times to adopt to Positive Train Control requirements and improve performance.

Routes 186 and 187 fill a similar niche, providing evening commuter service between BSNF Line’s Lisle station and the municipalities further north, supplementing existing rush hour service. The two routes have the dubious honor of having the lowest ridership figures in the entire system –  Route 187 ridership has been in single digits, getting no riders at all on some months, while Route 186 ridership is only slightly better.

Route 669 provides rush hour service between the Western Springs BNSF line station to destinations in Western Springs, Indian Head Park and Burr Ridge in the south and dropping passengers back off in the afternoon and early evening. Its ridership isn’t as low as any of the previous examples, falling within 21-37 range, but, looking year to year, it  has been mostly declining since 2009. Daly Skogsbakken noted that Burr Ridge riders would still be able to take advantage of the Route 855 premium commuter express route, which stops at the Burr Ridge park-n-ride facility. Since most commuters use monthly passes, that would actually save money — the cost of the Metra monthly pass between Western Springs and downtown Chicago is $181.25 ($211.25 if one adds a Metra/Pace PlusPass), while the Premium 30-day pass is $140.

Other Service Cuts

Route 540 is a bit of an outlier — it operates most of the day on weekdays and Saturdays,  doesn’t connect to any Metra station and provides school bus service between the Aurora Transportation Center and Aurora East High School. Similar to Route 806, it serves several community institutions – in this case, Rush-Copley Medical Center and Waubonsee Community College’s Fox Valley campus. Still, looking at the ridership, the numbers have been dropping in the last two years, going from 54-100 range in 2016 and 59-102 range in 2017 to 46-95 in 2018. The drops look especially stark month to month — in 2018, the numbers dropped by as much as 50 percent during winter months. The 2019 data is only available for the first three months — but what is up so far suggests that the pattern continued.

Daly Skogsbakken said that both the college and the hospital got letters about the proposed elimination. She said that the ridership to the hospital specifically have been low — an average of 14 riders a day got on and an average of 16 riders a day got off. Aurora East High School ridership is lower still — the bus picks up an average of 3 students in the afternoon and drops off an average of one rider in the morning. Daly Skogsbakken also noted, that, unlike some northern and northwestern suburban school districts, East Aurora High School has its own school buses, so the students wouldn’t be left in the lurch.

Similar to last year, Pace cut Saturday service on several routes. Route 509 serves northeastern Joliet and south Lockport, while the Route 559 serves Illinois Route 59 corridor in Naperville and Aurora.

Route 570 is unusual because its Saturday routing is noticeably different from the weekday routing, serving parts of Round Lake and not going as far west as Fox Lake Metra station. So while the weekday service between Fox Lake and the College of Lake County would remain unchanged, Round Lake, the college and the surrounding areas will lose Saturday transit service.

Capital Projects

As the proposed budget notes, this spring, Pace is getting $228 million in state funding earmarked for various capital projects and $20 million for paratransit improvements. For 2020 in particular, Pace is proposing to spend a total of $108,274,000 from a combination of state, federal and local sources. Much that funding would go toward “boring, but necessary” projects – buying replacement buses, serves and fareboxes, adding new bus shelters and signs, as well as reducing the deferred maintenance backlog. But the list also includes a couple of larger items.

Pace is planning to spend $42 million on a new garage in Wheeling for the buses serving its northwestern routes, which would replace the garage in Des Plaines.  This was something that has long been on the agency’s wishlist, since it would allow them to convert those routes to compressed natural gas — a cleaner-burning, less expensive alternative to diesel.  Pace currently only has one garage for CNG buses, the Markham garage, where the buses used on most routes serving southern Cook County and parts of southeast Will County are based.

Speaking of garages, Pace is planning to spend $3.4 million to build a new garage to house the vehicles for the rush hour express routes along Stevenson Expressway. Daly Skogsbakken previously told me that, while Pace would like to add service along those routes, it dcurrently lacks the space to store the new buses.

Pace is also planning to spend $6.3 million to build a new Joliet transit center near the Joliet Gateway Center station, which serves as terminal for Metra’s Rock Island District and Heritage Corridor Lines, as well as a stop for Amtrak’s Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle trains. The buses that serve downtown Joliet currently stop in front of the Joliet Union Station building – which worked great when it was used as a station, but since the entrance was moved to the Joliet Gateway Center on the other side of the Heritage Corridor embankment, Pace riders now have to dash through the underpass to catch the trains.

Daly Skogsbakken said that, at this point, the only thing that’s certain about the transit center is the location – it would be built on the parking lot at the southwest corner of the spot where the two railroad lines converge, across the tracks from the Joliet Union Station building.

Pace is also planning to spend $1 million to renovate Harvey Transportation Center, a major south-suburban transit hub located across the street from the Harvey Metra Electric station. As I’ve previously reported, local riders said they felt unsafe using it, especially late at night. Daly Skogsbakken said that the plans for that are still being finalized,.

And, in a smaller, but still significant addition, Pace is planning to spend $1.6 million to add new bus tracker signs. They are currently available at several major transit hubs such as the Des Plaines Metra station, all of the suburban Pulse Milwaukee stations, and even at a few lower-profile stops, such as the shelter at the southeastern corner of the intersection of Milwaukee and Touhy avenues. Daly Skogsbakken said that they expect to install 14or 15 bus tracker signs, and Pace doesn’t “have the locations to share” at this point.

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