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January launch of discounted South Side Metra advances thanks to Metra approval

A Metra Rock Island District train at Gresham. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Last month Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle announced during her annual budget speech that the county was finally moving forward with the long-awaited plan to lower fares on Metra’s Electric District and Rock Island District lines serving the South Side and south suburbs, dubbed the Fair Transit South Cook pilot.

The plan had previously faced resistance from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who defeated Preckwinkle in the last mayoral election. Lightfoot complained that the program would cannibalize CTA ridership, even though the county offered to subside the CTA and Metra for any revenue losses.

Cook County is currently working with local transit agencies to implement the three-year pilot program, with a goal of launching in early January 2021 with a reduction in Metra fares, plus new Pace bus service.

Today the plan moved a step closer to becoming a reality as the Metra board of directors approved an intergovernmental agreement with the county to launch the pilot, starting with a 50 percent cut on the MED and RID lines.

Under the IGA, Metra will charge its reduced fare rates – normally charged to seniors, persons with disabilities and K-12 students – for all tickets to all riders on the lines starting. Those rates, which involve no changes to Metra’s fare structure and can be implemented immediately, will be evaluated as the test progresses. The county will cover the difference between the reduced fares and full fares for three years.

“Metra is excited to work with Cook County to improve public transportation in the region and act as a catalyst for economic development and growth,” said Metra CEO Jim Derwinski in a statement. “We would like to thank President Preckwinkle for her vision and financial support in bringing this project to fruition.”

“Cook County is extremely excited to partner with Metra and Pace to bring enhanced and affordable transit options to residents and workers in the Southland,” said Preckwinkle in a statement. “This is part of our overall approach to ensure that we are equitably allocating public resources to benefit our communities with the greatest need.”

The plan includes expansion of Pace’s 352 Halsted Service, which will improve the hours and frequency of service between the CTA Red Line's 95th/Dan Ryan station and the Pace Chicago Heights Terminal on weekdays, Saturday and Sunday. An iGA between Pace and the county is also in the works. As Fair Transit moves forward, additional tweaks to service options will be made.

Local transportation advocacy organizations applauded the news of the Metra board approval. "We commend the Metra board for approving the Fair Transit South Cook pilot," said Active Transportation Alliance advocacy manager Julia Gerasimenko. "At a time of the multiple crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession, and the racial justice uprising, this is a critical and urgent program that will allow for greater freedom of movement for communities of color on the Far South Side. This program will serve communities that have been under-resourced in transportation and other critical needs. We hope to see further collaboration and innovation between our local transit agencies and bodies of government that can help provide affordable and reliable transportation for some of our region’s most vulnerable residents."

Said Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink, "We are very supportive of the Fair Transit South Cook project, which shows the type of innovation we need to ensure transit works for everyone in the region, particularly those who rely on it most. We hope to see more instances of interagency partnerships to test new ways of delivering affordable and high quality transit service moving forward."

Oboi Reed, head of the mobility justice nonprofit Equiticity, also heralded the news. "Access to public transit is a fundamental right in our society," he said. "Transit is critically important for Black and Brown people in our region, as we are the most dependent on transit and experience the greatest levels of transportation inequities. We salute President Preckwinkle and [Metra chair Romayne] Brown for establishing this partnership. We are confident this pilot with increase mobility and improve life outcomes for marginalized racial groups on Chicago’s South Side and in the south suburbs. We look forward to this program being permanent."

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