Nice: CTA gets $118M in operations funds, opportunity to apply for electrification cash

One of the CTA's 12 electric buses operating on Chicago Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance
One of the CTA's 12 electric buses operating on Chicago Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance

Good news: The CTA just got an infusion of federal cash for operations that will help it stay solvent as it recovers from a massive drop in ridership during COVID-19, and address service gaps due to labor shortages. In addition, new federal grant programs were announced that the CTA can apply for to fund its plans to electrify the bus fleet by 2040.

$118M in American Rescue Plans awarded for CTA operations

Yesterday Illinois’ U.S. senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth announced that $118 million in American Rescue Plan funding was awarded to the CTA by the Federal Transit Administration. This cash is in addition to $912.1 million in ARP funds previously awarded to the CTA and officials say it will pay for operating expenses and prevent layoffs and service cuts.

“As the country’s second-largest public transportation system and the only major U.S. public transit agency to not reduce scheduled service throughout the pandemic [although actual service has been reduced due to labor shortages], the CTA and its workers have been providing essential service to those who need it most,” Durbin said in a statement. “Robust and reliable transit is critically important for Chicagoans and our region’s economic recovery, which is why Senator Duckworth and I strongly advocated for this federal relief funding.”

In February, the senators and other members of the Illinois congressional delegation sent a letter to the FTA supporting the CTA’s application for funding.

Federal grants announced that can be used for bus electrification

Also yesterday the Biden administration announced that about $1.47 billion in federal grants will be available to modernize bus fleets and facilities under two different grant programs, the first FTA competitive grant initiatives under the new federal infrastructure bill.

The Low or No Emission (Low-No) Grant Program offers funding to help transit system buy or lease U.S.-built low or no emission vehicles, plus related equipment or facilities. The infrastructure bill earmarked $5.5 billion over five years for the Low-No Program, which the feds say is over 10 times as much as during the previous five years of funding. This year roughly $1.1 billion in grants will be available.

Meanwhile, the Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program provides cash for transit agencies to rehab buses, vans, and related equipment, and build bus facilities. The infrastructure bill set aside almost $2 billion over five years for this program. In 2022, about $372 million for grants will be available.

“This is another example of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in action,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. “We’re making the largest-ever investment in this program for buses and bus facilities, helping to deliver better commutes and cleaner air to American communities.”

Applications for the two programs are due at on May 31.

Responses to the announcements

Naturally, the CTA is jazzed about the good tidings from Washington. “The CTA is pleased to have received $118M in discretionary funds from the American Rescue Plan, which helps cover costs associated with day-to-day operations. Funding allocated through the ARP is critical to ensuring CTA can continue to provide the essential transit services in support of the city’s ongoing recovery efforts.”

The CTA also heralded the new funding for bus electrification. “The additional low or no emission grant resources available through the [federal infrastructure bill] is great news and will help the CTA move closer toward achieving its goal of an all-electric bus fleet by 2040. Funding is needed to not only purchases new electric buses, but to also help make the necessary infrastructure upgrades required for operating and supporting a fleet of 1,900 electric buses.”

The CTA added that last month’s release of the “Charging Forward” plan for converting the bus fleet to all-electric puts the agency “in a prime position to apply and compete for these additional funds.”

Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink echoed that last sentiment. “It is very good that CTA has just released its strategic plan for bus electrification, which will position the agency strongly to compete in this national competitive grant program,” she said. “The CTA committed in its plan to prioritize… communities that are most in need of emissions reduction, which is also in alignment with the Federal Justice40 Initiative.”

Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead also applauded the news. “This is just the latest example of our Congressional leaders delivering much needed funds to advance the sustainability and equity of the Chicago area’s public transit system,” he said.

But Whitehead noted that, while bus electrification is great for reducing emissions and improving air quality in cities, and delivering a smoother and quieter ride for customers, it doesn’t actually get people where they’re going any quicker, because buses get mired in car driver-created traffic jams. “Now the CTA and all our transportation agencies need to pair [electrification] with local action to make bus service faster and more reliable to better serve current riders and attract new ones. These new electric buses should be running in dedicated bus lanes and given priority at traffic signals, and we can get that done long before 2040.”

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