What the next mayor can — and should — do for public transportation

Bringing on more police to curb crime, running more Metra trains to accommodate non-traditional work hours and lobbying for more funding are some of the things transit experts tell us must be on the new mayor’s to-do list.

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A CTA Blue Line train travels westbound toward the Harlem station last October in Oak Park

A CTA Blue Line train travels westbound in Oak Park toward the Harlem station last October.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The next mayor of Chicago will have to quickly roll up his sleeves to get public transportation back on track.

The CTA, the Metra rail system and the Pace suburban bus system together will face a $730 million budget gap when federal pandemic money runs out. Labor, inflation and fuel prices are severely driving up costs, but ridership is not close to returning to pre-pandemic levels. Service cuts would have to be drastic if that is the only tool used to close the gap.

”The mayor in the next term is going to have the biggest [transit] financial crisis ever experienced and will have to be very involved politically in finding solutions,” said Stephen Schlickman, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who teaches a course on the funding of transportation.

Editorial

Editorial

Here are some of the things transit experts tell us must be on the new mayor’s to-do list.

  • A push for more cops on the CTA. Crime is up on the CTA, which is driving away some riders, and with fewer riders on the system, those who do ride feel less safe. If remaining riders drift away, the CTA could be caught in a downward spiral.
  • Helping to lobby to lower or get rid of the systemwide requirement that the CTA, Metra and Pace together generally cover at least 50% of their costs with farebox revenues. Until ridership is restored, that is not realistic, and other major transit systems don’t have such a high requirement. Boston, for example, requires just 9%. The requirement was suspended during the pandemic, but is scheduled to resume. Besides farebox revenues, the transit agencies also get money from sales taxes, real estate transfer taxes and federal and state grants.
  • Joining with representatives of the Regional Transportation Authority, CTA, Metra and Pace to obtain additional funding for public transportation from Springfield, Washington and the City Council.
  • Leading the charge to put an end to a “collection fee” that former Gov. Bruce Rauner imposed on municipalities and the RTA. The fee of 1.5% of sales tax revenues amounts to tens of millions dollars a year. Supposedly, the fee covers the cost of collecting sales taxes, but that is a duty the Illinois Department of Revenue has anyway. This is not a time to be siphoning money away from public transit.
  • Riding the CTA. Not necessarily every day, but a mayor riding the CTA sends a message that improvements are on the way, and that all by itself will lure riders back to the system. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel rode the CTA. So did former Gov. Jim Edgar.
  • Pushing for the resources to make wifi and cellular service available throughout the system. That would bring back some riders who don’t like dealing with dead spots.
  • Helping to find a way to run more Metra trains during the middle of the day, including quasi-express trains, to adapt to the schedules of workers whose hours don’t fit traditional commuting times. Now, freight train companies — who use the same tracks or tracks that cross commuter lines — give priority to commuter trains during morning and evening rush hour. They use the time in between to move their freight. This issue will be a challenge to negotiate just as more freight trains are expected to come through the Chicago area with the acquisition of the Kansas City Southern by the Canadian Pacific. But doing nothing is not an option.

Adapting Metra schedules to how people work these days will help bring more people into the central business district, a plus for the city, and help fill Metra’s coach cars. In the past, Chicago mayors have tended to act like Metra does not operate in the city, but the city is where a third of the rail agency’s stops are. A healthy rail system also would ease congestion on the roads.

A long way to go

Before the pandemic, almost 70% of the people who worked in the central business district rode mass transit. Many riders are essential workers who are transit-dependent. All of the big legacy systems in major cities are working to figure out how to grapple with changes wrought by the pandemic, and the new mayor would be wise to brainstorm with them to come up with answers.

The mayor also will face demands for system improvements other governments will want to see before agreeing to fork over more money.

Ridership is rebounding from pandemic losses — by 24% last year on the CTA and 70% on Metra — but there is a long way to go. The new mayor will have a big role in making sure public transit gets there.

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