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How to link Metra and the CTA for the greater good of the South Side and south suburbs

Lower fares and increase service on the Metra Electric/Rock Island line, then integrate it with the CTA and Pace.

Metra Electric train at University Park. | Bill Ruminski/Sun-Times
A Metra Electric train passes through University Park.
Bill Ruminski/Sun-Times

Say you’re an hourly wage-earner living in Roseland with a job almost 15 miles away in the West Loop, near Madison and Halsted streets.

Driving to work is pretty much out of the question, given the cost of gas, car upkeep and daily parking plus the hassles of rush-hour traffic.

On public transportation, the quickest, most direct commute combines the Metra’s Rock Island line and the Chicago Transit Authority. You catch the Rock Island line at 107th Street, get downtown in about 35 minutes, then hop on a CTA bus to get to the office in another 10 or 15 minutes.

But with both fares — $5.50 for Metra, another $2.25 for the CTA bus — you’re shelling out $15.50 a day. That’s prohibitively expensive on a low-wage earner’s paycheck. Buying monthly or weekly passes saves you a bit, but you’re still stuck with paying two fares on separate transit systems.

Using Metra becomes nearly impossible when you’re scheduled to work evenings or weekends, given that Metra trains run far less frequently at those times.

Your other option is to rely solely on the CTA, at a lower cost of about $5 a day. But that option also takes more time — probably an hour — and requires taking one bus to the 95th Street Red Line station, riding the L to Loop, and then transferring to a second bus.

A better way

There’s a better way to serve South Side and south suburban commuters who work in the city’s expanding downtown area, where most new jobs are being created. And as Sun-Times columnist Ed Zotti wrote recently, this better way would also shore up Metra’s declining ridership and spark development in neighborhoods and suburbs that need an economic boost.

The plan, first proposed by Cook County’s transportation department, is to lower fares and increase service on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines, then integrate the line with the CTA and the suburban Pace bus system so that riders don’t pay a second full fare to transfer.

Metra fares within Chicago would fall to the same price as a CTA ride, a substantial savings for most riders. Metra fares from suburban stops would remain on a zoned system, but would be lowered overall. Additional Metra trains would be added to both lines, running more often.

Transit advocates, civic groups and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle are enthusiastic about a proposed three-year pilot program to work out the kinks. The county estimates a daily loss of 8,000 L riders and 23,000 CTA bus riders, with the steepest decline expected at 95th Street station, where ridership could fall by half.

Mayor Lightfoot balking

So far, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has balked for just that reason: The anticipated negative impact on CTA ridership, which declined citywide by 2.4% last year.

Preckwinkle, however, has offered county money to help offset any revenue loss to the CTA.

We appreciate the mayor’s concerns — we share them — but we urge her to support the pilot program.

As Linda Thisted of the Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric said to us, “There are details to be worked out. But there needs to be leadership on this.”

Good public policy puts what’s best for all the people first, not protecting or shoring up the ridership of one agency, the CTA.

As Zotti argued in a recent column, the loss of CTA ridership is a secondary concern at best if the more integrated commuter service means more people overall start using public transit. A consultant for Cook County has estimated that Metra would gain 84,000 riders — a net gain in overall transit ridership of 48,000 people.

Good transit reduced poverty

And here’s another vital point: An easy, fast commute is one of the best ways to give low-income workers a good shot at escaping poverty, as Harvard University researchers found in 2015.

A shorter commute was strongly linked to upward economic mobility, more so than factors such as reduced neighborhood crime, improved school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community.

City Hall should get on board.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.