It’s still a ways down the tracks, but a train full of red ink is heading towards public transportation in Chicagoland, including Evanston.
The Regional Transportation Authority says that mass transit in our area faces a $730 million annual deficit, starting in 2026.
Federal COVID relief dollars, which have kept transit systems solvent around the nation, run out at the end of 2025.
In a virtual public budget hearing Wednesday afternoon, RTA officials as well as citizens talked about what mass transit means to the region, and also what it would mean if there are significant reductions.
Evanston has three Metra stations, several CTA Purple Line L stations, and multiple CTA and Pace bus stops.
“It is impossible,” said RTA Planner Peter Kersten, “for RTA to meet the crisis by raising fares and cutting service alone.”
Either of those options only makes the problem worse. Higher fares means fewer riders, and less service means fewer riders as well, adding to any potential deficit.
“We need to pursue addtional funding rather than cutting service,” Kersten said.
“But no single funding source,” he noted, “will be enough.”
Multiple options will be examined, such as a higher RTA sales tax, increasing tolls on highways, and implementing “congestion pricing” in Chicago, where it could cost more to drive your personal car downtown during certain hours.
While 2026 may seem like a long way off, building a political coalition to find a financial solution will not be easy.
The draft of RTA’s new 5-year Strategic Plan, called “Transit is the Answer,” calls on transportation supporters to develop alternate funding sources, create a climate action plan which incorporates transit, hold a region-wide safety summit to deal with crime onboard trains and buses, and also try to have a free or reduced price pilot program to make transit more accessible to low income indivduals, making the system more equity-sensitive.
One of the biggest challenges facing transit is the impact of COVID-19 on work and travel patterns.
While bus, Metra rail, and “L” ridership is at its highest since the pandemic began, it is still below the pre-COVID level of 1.6 million daily riders and may never return to that higher number.
For 2023, the CTA (bus and L) is projecting 58% of pre-pandemic ridership, Metra 47%, and Pace suburban buses 51%.
While service cuts are not seen as a long-term solution, Pace plans to permanently discontinue 89 routes that were suspended during the pandemic.
None of those routes serves Evanston. In fact, Pace plans to add a limited-stop run on the Route 250 Dempster Street bus, which will make it faster to get from points in Evanston to O’Hare Airport.
The RTA’s proposed 2023 budget is $3.6 billion, for CTA, Metra and Pace combined. RTA has final say on approving each agency’s spending plans.
About half of the 20 people who commented during the public hearing were climate activists, either individuals or members of groups.
Their primary message was urging RTA to override the CTA decision to buy 500 diesel-powered buses instead of using those dollars for electric vehicles.
Transit rider John Labaj said not buying more electric buses would be “the greatest missed opportunity in the history of Chicago public transit.”
RTA board chair Kirk Dillard said he’s been in touch with the CTA regarding electric buses.
Dillard said the head of the CTA, Dorval Carter, has indicated the electric bus transition might take more time, but it’s coming.
According to Dillard, Carter said “it’s a multi-year project. Just look at this over the next couple of years.”
Dillard said that “transit can be the economic equalizer” for the metropolitan area, as well as “the environment’s best friend.”
That’s the message transit advocates will advance as the fiscal cliff gets closer and closer.
The RTA board votes on the 2023 budget on December 15, and on the 5-year Strategic Plan on February 16.
If you want to comment on either, go to rtachicago.org.