Metra may lose over $500 million — and 97% of riders — due to coronavirus

Tom Farmer, CFO of Metra, projected a loss of nearly $536 million in revenue this year and through 2021.

SHARE Metra may lose over $500 million — and 97% of riders — due to coronavirus
With many people working from home, this inbound Metra train car on the Union Pacific North line was nearly empty at 8:30 a.m. Monday, March 16, 2020.

Metra was seeing a drop in ridership even before the stay-at-home order took effect. With people already working from home, this car on Metra’s Union Pacific North line was nearly empty when it arrived downtown the morning of March 16

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Metra is expecting significant loss in vital revenue streams due to the coronavirus pandemic impinging on the lives of its traditional riders.

Tom Farmer, CFO of Metra, projected a loss of nearly $536 million in revenue this year and through 2021. He warns the figures presented were preliminary; it could be less or far more.

“To deal with this we need to understand what the ‘new normal’ is,” Farmer said. “We need to actively innovate to meet the changing public needs.”

Metra has seen a significant drop in passengers as many now work remotely or have lost jobs during the statewide stay-at-home order.

Ridership on the commuter rail line dropped by more than half in March when the first stay-at-home order was issued. On March 31, only 7,000 passengers used Metra; on the same day in 2019, ridership was 286,000.

It projects to lose 97% of riders in both April and May. That impact is expected to be only slightly less in June, when a 90% drop in riders is projected.

About 52% of Metra’s operating budget depends on passenger fare revenue, and Farmer believes ridership may “never recover to 2019 levels.”

In 2020, Metra projects to lose $192 million in fare revenue and $139 million in sale tax — $331 million in all. Projected losses in 2021 are lower: $75 million in fare revenue and $129 million in sale tax.

Michael Gillis, a Metra spokesman, said the agency has no answers yet on dealing with the financial hit, and could not say if service would be disrupted.

“We expect this will change but this is the best picture we can paint right now,” Gillis said. “I think it’s too early to know what this means. We know we are getting some federal help and we are going to need some help beyond that.”

Metra is slated to get $400 million through the federal stimulus package, but it’s uncertain when it will arrive, Gillis said.

Ultimately, there will be a slow but steady ridership increase after the stay-at-home order is lifted. That recovery could be hindered by low gasoline prices and relatively uncluttered roads, at least at first, which may encourage more people to drive, Gillis said.

“Things may not be back to normal and we have to be nimble and flexible to make adjustments as necessary.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member inReport for America,a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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