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New RTA ads target the perils of parking

As it battles to avoid $170 million in proposed regional transit cuts, the RTA Thursday unveiled its latest round of pro-transit ads, focused on the pains of parking.

The RTA’s $5 million, three-year “Ride On” advertising campaign aims to convey the many benefits of using transit, as well as the hassles — or “pain points” — of driving that transit riders avoid.

“One of the pain points that resonates [with people] is parking,” Regional Transportation Authority spokeswoman Susan Massel said Thursday.

And that’s the focus of the RTA’s two most recent ads.

One shows a couple gazing up at a hornet’s nest of parking signs as they ponder whether they’ve parked legally.

A second shows a driver trying to exit a parking garage while a payment machine repeatedly demands “more money, more money.”

RTA board member Blake Hobson of McHenry County Thursday questioned whether the ads, which launched in January, were working.

He pointed to RTA data indicating first-quarter ridership across the region was mostly flat or down compared with the first quarter of 2014. CTA rail ridership was down 0.1 percent; CTA bus ridership was flat; Metra was up 0.9 percent despite a February fare hike, and Pace bus ridership was down 4.9 percent.

“Based on that, I’d say it’s ineffective,” Hobson said.

However, other RTA data showed that most transit peers saw even bigger ridership drops over the same period, something RTA staff said may have been tied to lower gas prices. As a result, another board member, J.D. Ross, questioned if RTA ridership would have seen deeper losses without the ads.

Officials noted that the ad campaign is intended to not only stimulate ridership among tourists, retirees, off-peak users, occasional passengers and weekend riders, but to grow the “awareness” of transit and improve its “perception.”

“You don’t just see one Coke ad and switch. You see ads over time and become a convert,” said Mark Minor, RTA manager of regional projects.

Minor said it was “too early to tell” if the ads were having an impact. Later this year, he said, experts will administer an online questionnaire to a representative sample of citizens to see if responses to questions about awareness and perception have improved after the campaign.

The RTA board signed off on the advertising deal a year ago — long before new Gov. Bruce Rauner unveiled a state budget with $170 million in proposed cuts to the CTA, Metra and Pace transit agencies that the RTA oversees.

Officials have warned the cuts could lead to less service and higher fares, prompting RTA Chairman Kirk Dillard to urge some kind of sales tax expansion to bankroll transit needs.

Officials indicated Thursday that the ads also could be an important tool in improving transit’s image as the RTA lobbies for funding amid a tough budget season. The ad campaign may help the RTA in “mobilizing constituents,” RTA executive director Leanne Redden said.