Thursday morning, 8:30 a.m. at the Davis Street Metra station looked a lot like Thursday mornings before COVID.
A good crowd of commuters, boarding a close-to-full train for the trip to downtown Chicago.
But most of those commuters probably didn’t realize that their train was heading straight for a cliff.
Not a physical cliff, but rather, a fiscal cliff.
Metra rail, CTA bus and “L”, and the Pace suburban bus system face a $730 million budget shortfall (a/k/a the “fiscal cliff”) in 2026, when federal COVID relief money, which helped transit agencies survive the huge drop-off in ridership during the pandemic, runs out.
And according to a draft of a document called “PART” (Plan of Action for Regional Transit), that fiscal cliff could mean up to a 40% reduction in Metra, “L”, and Pace train and bus service in 2026 and beyond, unless the funding gap is filled.
That would be bad news for commuters like Karen Loveland, who just started a new job in downtown Chicago after three-and-a-half years of working remotely, at home.
Riding a Metra train, Loveland told Evanston Now, “takes the stress and aggravation” out of commuting.
“It’s very efficient. You can read, and before you know it, you’re there,” she said.
“Before you know it, you’re there” also sums up the 2026 fiscal cliff looming on the horizon.
The PART document, from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), not only outlines the painful reality of service cuts if nothing is done, but also looks at the potentially painful solutions for coming up with the gap-filling funding.
But the document also says that just returning to the pre-COVID status quo is not enough to increase ridership long-term and make the system more cost-efficient.
CMAP says the report is “an ambitious and visionary plan and recommendation to reimagine our transit system – not simply restore the system that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Among the proposals are transitioning to a “regional” rail approach, with less reliance on AM/PM rush hour passengers, and more service midday and on weekends.
While Thursday morning at Davis Street may have looked the same as before COVID, it’s not the same on Fridays and Mondays, because many commuters have switched to just working downtown three days a week.
“While Metra serves nearly as many unique customers every week as it did before the pandemic,” the report notes, “these customers use the system less frequently than before.”
CMAP says while transit ridership has been increasing post-pandemic, it’s still expected to only top out at 68% of pre-COVID numbers in 2026 for Metra, CTA, and Pace combined, when trains and buses hit the “cliff.”
Total ridership in 2019, before COVID, was 562 million. Last year, it was only 287 million.
Besides changing to a “regional rail” approach for Metra, the report also calls for “faster and more reliable bus service,” a fare structure that allows customers to change modes (Metra to Pace, for example) with a single ticket purchase, and also “more affordable fares and passes for low income travelers and youths to balance any required fare increases.”
Of course, filling a $730 million shortfall (which will only increase in future years), is not easy. (The three transit agencies, plus paratransit, have a combined operating budget in 2023 of $3.5 billion).
The report looks at a variety of options, including extending the transit-supporting sales tax from goods to services (things like attorneys, accountants, hair salons, and other similar businesses), higher tolls and vehicle registration fees, and a downtown Chicago parking tax.
PART also suggests combining the three operating agencies, Metra, CTA, and Pace into one organization, which, the document says, could increase efficiency and reduce costs.
Getting any tax or fee increases past the legislature in Springfield will not be simple.
Prof. Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, told Evanston Now that while “the fiscal cliff is real,” and “on paper, the proposals sound good,” he is “skeptical they can pull off” any agency consolidation, because the three are so different.
Mahmassani said he “fully agrees with regionalization, but the nature of the service needs to be different, and not just more of the same.”
For example, he suggested the possibility of some sort of unified system utilizing Uber or Lyft, for the “first mile/last mile” ride to a train, bus, or L stop.
The Transportation Center director was also concerned about any potential sales tax expansion due to the impact on small businesses.
He also said more attention needs to be paid to crime, especially on the L, where public perception is “discouraging choice riders” who have options.
The PART document calls for “transit ambassadors,” but does not specifically ask for more police officers on transit patrol.
Mahmassaini agreed that a healthy mass transit system is absolutely critical for Chicagoland.
Despite the financial and political roadblocks that transit is facing, Mahmassani said he’s confident that community and legislative leaders “will come up with stopgap funding. Nobody will let the service collapse. It’s essential.”
But can the solution be more than just “stopgap?”
Conor Smith hopes so.
One of the Thursday morning Davis Street commuters, Smith said he recalls his grandfather “talking about his grandfather taking the train” to work.
That goes back a long time.
How much longer it will continue depends on getting across the “cliff,” and planning for beyond.
The planning agency will discuss the proposals on Sept. 13. A final recommendation is due to the state legislature by Jan. 1.