The coronavirus relief measure, which is creeping through Congress like a bus navigating rush hour traffic, would provide much-needed funding for transit agencies that serve Evanston, and help head off service cuts and/or a fare increase some time next year.

The Regional Transportation Authority this morning approved a $3 billion 2021 operating budget for the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and the Pace suburban bus system, a budget which assumes additional federal dollars.

RTA officials said the COVID bill under consideration in Congress would give Chicago-area transit agencies $450 million more dollars in 2021, almost covering a projected $500 million operating shortfall.

Commuter rail, bus, and “L” ridership have plummeted since COVID-19 hit the country in mid-March. “The pandemic has decimated fare box revenue,” said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden.

Metra, which has three stations in Evanston, has been hardest hit. With many commuters working at home instead of heading to downtown Chicago, Metra has been carrying only 10% of its pre-COVID ridership. Metra, Pace, and CTA ridership are expected to increase slowly next year, but would still be far below pre-COVID levels.

Both Metra and Pace have reduced service since the pandemic began. CTA has not. The 2021 budget continues that pattern, although without the federal aid, cuts could come everywhere. Money from a previous federal bill, the CARES Act, has helped transit agencies this year.

Starting in January, the RTA board will begin developing a “Plan B,” in case the federal assistance either does not materialize, or comes in lower than expected.
Board member Chris Groven said planning for service cuts is necessary, “as ugly as it might be.”

Board members said any potential reductions would try to minimize impact on transit-dependent riders, such as low income passengers without cars, and those who use para-transit.

The RTA Board also passed a 2021-25 capital improvements budget for infrastructure and equipment. The $6.3 million dollar funding plan is 24% lower than the previous 5-year plan.

RTA Board Chair Kirk Dillard said he is “very pleased” with President-Elect Joe Biden’s choice of former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary. Dillard said the Secretary-designee’s “roots as a mayor” will help in working on mass transit issues. He also said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a “tremendous relationship” with Buttigieg.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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