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CTA, Metra and Pace urged to test sharply reduced fares or no fares to lure back riders lost during pandemic

MarySue Barrett, retiring president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said something dramatic must be done to rebuild rider confidence after a yearlong, work-at-home stretch that left all three mass-transit agencies reeling.

From left, Emily Bloom, director of marketing and communications, Audrey Winning, director, MarySue Barrett, president, and Jeremy Glover, associate of the the Metropolitan Planning Council met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, October 31, 2018. Rich Hein/Sun-Times
MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board October 31, 2018.
Sun-Times Media

The CTA, Metra and Pace should test sharply reduced bus and train fares — or no fares at all — to lure back riders who abandoned mass transit during the pandemic and still fear it’s unsafe, an influential planner said Tuesday.

MarySue Barrett, retiring president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said something dramatic needs to be done to rebuild rider confidence after a yearlong work-at-home stretch that left all three mass transit agencies reeling.

According to a recent study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, fares and sales tax receipts to the three mass transit agencies dropped by nearly $750 million.

From June through December alone, Metra lost 89% of its riders. CTA trains lost 77%. CTA and Pace bus ridership dropped by 50% and 60%, respectively. That’s even though Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted his stay-at-home shutdown order in June.

“There’s fear. We’re out of practice. That’s something that … could be part of a wave of innovation of different kinds of transportation options. … We ought to do more to support people to make their transit commute easier and help them pay for it,” Barrett said.

“We could even use some of our transit money right now for a pilot to make transit greatly reduced or even free for some people in 2021. I’d love to see that kind of experimentation. … We all need encouragement that this option is there for us and it’s safe. With technology, we could even tell people about capacity of trains and buses. We could do a better job with safety and cleanliness and just rebuild the confidence of that.”

Before the coronavirus, Barrett noted that “about two-thirds” of downtown employees used mass transit to get to their jobs.

Although there are far fewer people now in the Central Business District, a higher percentage of them are driving, she said.

“If we continue that trend, we’ll choke,” Barrett said.

“We need transit to be robust and growing in its ridership. … The places that grew in jobs during the recession were the ones closest to transit. It’s our core strength. It’s our target map for economic growth. But will people be in the office the way they were before? No. And transit needs to adapt to that.”

A former policy chief under Mayor Richard M. Daley, Barrett announced this week she is stepping down after 25 years as president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Among the unfinished business she leaves for her successor is the thorny issue of aldermanic prerogative over zoning.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot took the first step toward getting rid of it by issuing an executive order stripping aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting.

She has threatened to do the same for aldermanic prerogative over zoning. But that would require a City Council vote she is almost certain to lose.

On Tuesday, Barrett suggested a less confrontational alternative.

“Instead of taking an approach of getting rid of aldermanic say on zoning, put some guardrails [up] and say, ‘There’s some things where we all need to be part of the solution.’ Affordable housing. Protecting our riverfronts. Industrial policy. That’s not a fiefdom. It has to be a give-and-take. You have to work within these parameters,” Barrett said.

“We have these assets. They are not owned by any one small part of the city. They are shared. An alderman’s say would still remain very strong. But within guidelines of ‘This is gonna be good for your neighborhood. And it’s gonna be good for the whole.’”

Lead pipe replacement is yet another piece of unfinished business. Lightfoot has outlined a plan to do that, but she’s starting so small it’ll take decades to complete.

There again, Barrett sees a potential solution.

She points to the conversation the MPC has convened — with mayors, labor unions and environmentalists — with an eye toward developing a state funding package to start replacing the 686,000 lead service lines in Illinois — more than any other state in the nation.

“Imagine if could align all of those three things: a pilot, yes small, in the city of Chicago … because they’ve had limited resources that’s targeting our lowest-income, highest health stressed homes combined with an influx of federal support and state support,” Barrett said, apparently referring to President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan.

“We could actually turn this from a problem — and a scary one, a costly one and a public health threat because no amount of lead is safe — into a job generator, a small business creator and an equity tool of unlocking a better Chicago.”