What will the new COVID stimulus bill mean for Chicagoland transit?

Boarding a #157 Streeterville/Taylor bus this month on Michigan Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield
Boarding a #157 Streeterville/Taylor bus this month on Michigan Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

Update 12/22/20: The TransitCenter foundation estimates that Chicagoland transit will be getting $486 million in stimulus funds.

Chicagoland transit agencies suffering massive ridership and revenue losses during the COVID-19 have made it through 2020 relatively unscathed due to the first round of federal stimulus funding, the CARES Act. But to have sufficient funding for next year, without having to resort to service cuts, fare hikes, and/or layoffs, they’ve been counting on the calvary to arrive in the form of a second pandemic relief package with money for public transportation.

Fortunately, after months of obstruction by the Republicans, Congress is finally set to vote on another $900 billion pandemic stimulus bill, which includes transit funding. The $14 billion earmarked for all public transportation across the nation in the new legislation is less than half of the $32 billion transit agencies and advocates were pushing for to prevent service cuts. These reductions would disproportionately impact essential workers and other transit-dependent people in Chicago, especially people of color and people living or working on the South and West Sides.

While we didn’t get everything we asked for, Chicago-area transit agencies and advocates are generally taking a glass-half-full view of the news, noting that in the short term the subsidy will prevent what CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. previously warned would be a “beyond-doomsday” scenario. They also noted that the incoming Biden-Harris administration will likely allocate more funding to save public transportation, so there’s reason to be hopeful that devastating service cuts can be avoided.

“We are heartened that the new stimulus package will provide the Chicago region with approximately $450 million of the $14 billion for transit agencies nationwide,” said Leanne Redden, head of the Regional Transit Authority, which oversees funding for the the three local transit systems. “While this is positive news, it will not completely cover the budget shortfall of $500 million in our 2021 Regional Transit Operating Budget. It also falls short of the $32 billion that [the American Public Transportation Association lobbying group] and other transit agencies across the country have called for.”

Redden said that to distribute the funds, RTA has begun work on “a data-driven, transparent, and collaborative process with CTA, Metra, and Pace to sustain critical transit services, especially for the most transit-reliant riders, and ensure our transit system can drive economic recovery once the darkest days of the pandemic are behind us.”

The CTA didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about the news, and Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis declined to comment on the news, noting, “We don’t know the details yet.”

Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly-Skoggsbakken said, “We are grateful that public transportation was included in the relief package passed by Congress. Transit agencies across the nation will be an integral part of our country’s economic recovery and this funding helps ensure that our services will still be here when American’s are ready to return to normal activities.”

Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink noted that the bill is good news, but it’s only a partial solution. “The stimulus bill would be expected help prevent additional transit cuts next year by largely filling transit agency 2021 budget holes. But that will mean continuation of COVID-era service, which already includes significant service reductions by Metra and Pace.” The CTA is the only major U.S. transit system that has kept service more-or-less at full strength during the coronavirus crisis.

Wennink noted that transit agencies will need additional relief funds to build transit service back up to full strength so that it will be able to support increased ridership as the pandemic eases and more people return to commuting to work. “And we also need to be prepared to take a hard look at how we can reshape and better integrate our system in the post-COVID era to make it work better for people who depend on it most, such as essential workers.”

The Active Transportation Alliance noted that the bill will provide some breathing room. “Chicago’s transit agencies desperately need emergency support and this bill is a significant down payment,” said spokesperson Kyle Whitehead. “We’re awaiting final text, but estimates indicate the bill could help CTA, Metra, and Pace avoid major cuts or layoffs in the first half of 2021. We’re grateful for every member of the Chicagoland delegation who fought for transit this time around and urge them to keep up the fight.”

However, Whitehead added, the bill doesn’t include any support for state and local governments. “So transportation departments across the region will continue to have to do more with less. Congress must come through with this aid in 2021 so cities can better support essential travel on foot and bikes during the pandemic, especially in the highest need communities that have been hit hardest by COVID.”

“The stimulus is unquestionably a relief!” said transit analyst Yonah Freemark, who previously worked for Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago and now works for Urban Institute. “The bill does suggest that CTA made a good bet in assuming that federal support would come through to fill part of the gap in its budget. The CTA took a gamble in its budget for the fiscal year beginning next summer, believing it made more sense to assume federal support than to cut service. So far, that gamble seems to have paid off – but we have to wait and see how much money ultimately comes through to see if service cuts will ultimately be necessary.”

Freemark added that Democratic leaders “Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden have been pretty adamant that they’d like to see another stimulus in the new year; transit systems would see an additional boost if that passes. But it may meet Republican opposition, depending on who controls the Senate.”

As such, people who care about the future of transit should keep a close eye on the two Senate seat runoff elections happening in Georgia next month, which will determine whether Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his deficit-hawk allies will continue to have significant control over the purse strings.

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