COVID relief aid from Washington will help cover a large percentage of the multi-million dollar losses local transit agencies are suffering due to running largely empty buses and trains during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ridership on Metra, CTA, and the Pace bus system, all of which serve Evanston, has plummeted since last March, with many commuters working remotely rather than heading to offices in downtown Chicago.

At a virtual meeting of the Regional Transportation Authority today, board members were told that the federal COVID aid package passed in December will direct $486 million to transit agencies in metropolitan Chicago. That will go a long way towards covering the more than $500 million shortfall projected for local transit this year.

There was also more good financial news, if anything can be seen as good during very bad times for mass transit. While sales tax revenues directed to transit are down, they are not down nearly as much as originally projected. Plus, there might be more federal aid if a new COVID relief measure is approved by Congress.

On the other hand, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s new budget proposal cuts state transportation funding, so the situation is in flux to say the least. The RTA board will readjust transit agency budgets next month.

Most current train, bus and “L” service is keyed towards essential workers and transit-dependent individuals who may not have a car but still must get to their jobs or medical appointments.

Metra, CTA and Pace ridership combined were down 58% in 2020, and that 2020 total actually includes two-and-a-half “normal” months before the pandemic decimated passenger counts. Metra has been hardest hit, with the UP North line through Evanston, for example, carrying only about 10% of the pre-pandemic totals.

Besides dealing with the current crisis, RTA also is looking longer term, to “reinvent transit” for the post-COVID future. Board member Pat Carey said, “We know Metra ridership will come back. Will it all come back? Maybe not.”

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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