Just when things started getting better, COVID-19 has thrown a red signal in front of the commuter trains, subways and buses that serve Evanston and the Chicago region.
Ridership, which had been gradually recovering from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, has basically stopped growing.
The Regional Transportation Authority, funding agency for Metra, CTA and Pace, says the combination of new coronavirus variants, vaccine hesitancy and downtown offices (mostly Chicago, but even places like Evanston) not fully reopening has “stymied ridership gains.”
“As 2022 begins,” an RTA news release states, “the region’s transit system is in a place of both urgency and uncertainty.”
Last month, the RTA board approved a $3.4 billion operating plan for the various transit agencies under its umbrella.
Federal COVID relief dollars have staved off financial disaster and might actually keep the RTA budget in adequate shape through the third quarter of 2025, the agency says.
“However,” the organization says, “those dollars will not sustain the regional transit system forever.”
RTA projects ending 2022 with ridership at about half of the pre-pandemic level across its various service providers, with some doing better than others.
Metra rail service is hardest hit, as commuter trains rely on downtown office workers, shoppers, and tourists from the suburbs. With those numbers shrinking, fewer people are taking the train.
Take the Union Pacific North line, which serves three stations in Evanston, for example.
In July 2020, early on in the pandemic and before vaccines were available, UP-N ridership plunged to 28,000 — just 4% of the usual monthly total.
Since then, more people have come back to the rails, but there is still a long way to go.
The most recent statistics, for November 2021, show ridership at 212,155 — less than a third of what it was in the same month two years ago.
Metra has taken a number of steps to boost ridership. UP-N timetables have been changed, adding more mid-day trains and putting them on a “memory” schedule, leaving each station at the same time every hour or half hour throughout the day.
Bargain “day passes” have also been introduced.
But transit leaders realize that other long-term changes are needed, as some downtown employees may work at home permanently even after the pandemic diminishes.
An April 2021 RTA survey found that 80% of pre-COVID riders would ultimately return to the bus, train or L if concerns over the virus decreased.
But that still leaves a 20% shortfall, “with lasting implications for the regional transit system,” RTA says.
RTA will use much of 2022 trying to figure out changes for 2023 and beyond, hoping to turn that red signal green, or at least yellow.