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New Sat/Sun pass, capital projects, and South Cook pilot part of Metra’s 2021 Budget

Photo: Metra

Update 10/10/20, 8 AM: After the publication of this article, a person close to the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot issue, who requested anonymity, told Streetsblog, "It’s my understanding the [Mayor Lori Lightfoot] and CTA are still not fully cooperating and as of today there will be no free/reduced transfers to CTA. The other elements of the pilot -- reduced Metra fare, transfer to Pace -- are moving forward. They’re still talking and hoping to reach agreement, but not there yet."

Tuesday's Metra’s board meeting was packed with several initiatives and projects the agency will pursue as a part of its 2021 budget. Metra’s $700 million budget is now available for public review and comment.

Although there are no planned service cuts or fare increases, the COVID-19 pandemic has punched a $70 million hole in the 2021 budget due to ridership and tax revenue losses. While the agency received CARES Act stimulus funding from the federal government, that money is expected to run out in mid-2021. Unless another stimulus bill with additional relief for public transit is passed, Metra will have to consider new revenue sources or operation cuts to fill the deficit.

Ridership is still 89 percent lower than budgeted in 2020, in line with previous pessimistic forecasts of Metra’s ridership. Although businesses and schools would need to reopen for ridership to return, Metra recognizes that there will be a permanent shift towards telecommuting and jobs may relocate from downtown. This means in the long-term, Metra must attract new riders by readjusting current service patterns and fare prices in order to compete with driving. There are encouraging signs that the agency is considering steps towards a true regional rail transportation system, rather than primarily serving white-collar suburban riders who commute downtown for 9-to-5 jobs.

New one-day, unlimited weekend pass

Metra discussed in September’s board meeting that they plan to implement several fare pilots in 2021 to bring back ridership. One proposal that is advancing is a new one-day, unlimited weekend pass coming February 2021. The pass would complement the existing weekend pass by being usable for only Saturday or Sunday, instead of the entire weekend, and will be priced at $7.

Once this one-day pass is launched in February, Metra will make the two-day weekend passes a mobile only option and shorten the ticket expiration to 14 days since time of purchase. Metra is still exploring other fare initiatives, such as a “Welcome Back” promotion, multi-day passes, off-peak pricing, and a loyalty program.

Rolling stock and infrastructure upgrades

Although the agency is facing a budget deficit, Metra will have $2 billion for capital projects investments over the next 5 years thanks to new revenues from the state government. Almost half will be dedicated to new rolling stock. For 2021 alone, Metra expects to purchase 200 new rail cars with the chance to purchase up to 200 more.

Several electric substations, signals, interlocking, and bridges will be rehabbed and built as a part of the 2021 budget. One of which is CREATE P2, a part of the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project to disentangle Chicago’s rail intersections, which will build a new connection for Metra’s SouthWest Service to terminate at LaSalle Street Station instead of Union Station. This will allow for fewer delays and more frequent service along the SWS. CREATE P2 is currently in the design phase and won’t start construction until all funding is secured.

Renderings of 59th St. (U. of Chicago), 147th St., and Peterson/Ridge stations. The latter two were funded in the previous budget.
Renderings of 59th St. (U. of Chicago), 147th St., and Peterson/Ridge stations. The latter two were funded in the previous budget.

There will also be systemwide station improvements such as the purchasing of 310 new ticket vending machines, and the implementation of TROI-Net, Metra’s new video displays for real-time train arrivals and customer messaging. Many of these projects will improve rider accessibility by replacing elevators, repair platforms, and enhance signage and lighting.

As a part of the 2021 budget, select stations that will be renovated include 59th St. (U. of Chicago), which will reopen the 60th Street entrance to provide better access to the future Obama Presidential Center, 79th St. (Chatham), and Westmont. The contract for Van Buren Street station’s design, which is only 30 percent ready, has also been extended to 2023, which is when construction will commence.

Fair Transit South Cook pilot

One of the last items for discussion was the Fair Transit South Cook pilot, with a presentation by guest speaker Randy Blankenhorn, former head of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Illinois Department of Transportation. South Cook County residents has higher transit dependencies, but longer commute times than other parts of the county. This is primarily because many residents can’t use the abundant transit services that exist, due to their high cost. Transportation is the second-highest expense for households, a significant cost-burden for low-income residents in the area, many of whom are essential workers.

To address this inequity, the pilot would reduce fares on the Metra Electric District and Rock Island District, improve frequency on the MED, and provide fare transfers with CTA and Pace. In addition, the Pace 352 – Halsted bus will be extended and have improved weekend service.

Fares would be the same price as existing reduced fares on MED and RID, which range from $2 from Zone A-B and $3.75 from Zones A-G. The reason for this is to simplify the number of fares that would exist, which should reduce the amount of confusion from riders. This has the benefit of making riding Metra to and from several stations in the city even more affordable than riding the CTA. Although there was no mention whether the Ventra card or the mobile app will be used for fare transfers with CTA and Pace, Ventra’s operator, Cubic, plans to be ready for the pilot.

Reduced fare prices for MED and RID
Reduced fare prices for MED and RID
Reduced fare prices for MED and RID

Mayor Lori Lightfoot originally objected to the pilot out of concern that CTA buses and trains would lose riders to affordable Metra lines. Fortunately, with Blankenhorn helping to negotiate between CTA and Metra, Lightfoot and CTA now seem to be onboard with the pilot. An intergovernmental agreement is drafted and will hopefully be approved at the November board meeting.

The pilot will be implemented from January 2021 to December 2023 and is intended to be flexible. Cook County and Metra will do extensive surveys and outreach throughout the pilot, to ensure there are necessary adjustments and that the pilot is truly benefitting low-income residents. Some Metra board members want other South Cook lines, such as the SouthWest Service and Heritage Corridor, to be included in future phases of the pilot. Although there are no current plans to do so, results from the pilot could inform future service for other Metra lines.

Although ridership may be down, Metra has an active year ahead that will challenge the agency to innovate and transform itself to better serve people. Metra is hosting several online hearings for the public to attend and comment on the 2021 budget.

More information on how to participate and share your opinions at the meetings can be found here.

The full 2021 budget document can be viewed here.

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