As 2021 came to an end, the Regional Transportation Authority said that mass transit in the Chicagoland area “is in a place of urgency and uncertainty.”

With ridership plummeting due to COVID-19 and work from home, the agency noted that “Transit is essential to our region’s success, but the timeline of recovery is unknown.”

Now, with 2022 close to the home stretch, things are somewhat better, but “uncertainty” is still the word of the day, and the “timeline of recovery” remains “unknown.”

So with that in mind, the RTA is surveying riders on what should be done to help ensure mass transit’s continued viability and relevance.

The survey asks respondents to compare their current Metra, “L”, or bus ridership frequency with before the pandemic, as well as choosing priorities and the transit system’s most urgent needs.

Among the options are improving safety, increasing accessibility for the physically challenged, making mass transit more of an equity tool for economic development, continuing the transition to zero-emission vehicles, and adapting rail and bus service to meet the changing needs of riders.

The RTA says that “Transit has been and continues to be a lifeline to many riders, but COVID-19 has also changed when, where, how, and why many residents use transit.”

That last point could, in theory, lead to different schedules for rail service, and different routes for buses, particularly if fewer commuters return to downtown offices even when (or perhaps if) COVID is no longer a concern.

While ridership has been increasing since the depths of COVID, it still has a long way to go, and may never get there.

A Metra train at the Davis Street station in Evanston.

For example, Metra, which has three stations in Evanston, carried 2.2 million passengers systemwide this July. That’s a huge increase from the COVID-related lows, but is still only about one-third of the pre-pandemic passenger numbers from July 2019.

The “L” is also seeing a similar pattern, although data is only available through May.

The Purple Line has seven stops in Evanston. At Davis Street, for example, the most recent average weekday saw 1,462 passengers in May 2022. That’s a giant jump from May 2020 (456 riders), but still far below pre-pandemic May, 2019 (3,524).

Money, of course, is always a factor, as mass transit does not make a profit anywhere in the world, and government funding is critical in covering what the farebox does not.

RTA’s operating budget for 2022 for Metra, CTA and Pace is $3.4 billion.

Federal COVID-relief assistance should, according to RTA, help keep the system solvent through the third quarter of 2025, “However,” the agency says, “those dollars will not sustain the system indefinitely.”

Hence the survey. You ride … so what do you want? Or, if you don’t ride any more since COVID … what would it take to bring you back?

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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