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What incoming mayors can and should do for public transportation

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Chicago’s next mayor will have to roll up his sleeves soon to get public transportation back to normal.

The CTA, Metra rail system, and Pace suburban bus system will face a combined budget shortfall of $730 million when federal pandemic funding runs out. Labor costs, inflation and fuel prices are driving up costs significantly, but passenger numbers are far from returning to pre-pandemic levels. If it is the only tool used to close the gap, the service cut needs to be made significantly.

“The next mayor is the biggest.” [transit] Stephen Schlickman, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches a course on financing transportation.

Here are a few things a public transportation expert told us should be on the new mayor’s to-do list.

  • Calls for more cops in CTA. crime is happening A CTA that pushes some passengers away will have fewer passengers in the system, making people feel less safe. As the rest of the riders move away, the CTA can spiral downward.
  • Help lobby to reduce or remove the system-wide requirement that CTA, Metra, and Pace together generally cover at least 50% of their costs from fare box revenue. Until passenger numbers recover, it is not realistic and other major transport systems do not have such high requirements. For example, Boston requires only 9%. This requirement was suspended during the pandemic and will be resumed. Besides fare revenue, transit agencies also earn revenue from sales taxes, real estate transfer taxes, and federal and state subsidies.
  • Working with representatives from the Regional Transit Authority, CTA, Metra and Pace to secure additional funding for public transit from Springfield, WA and the City Council.
  • Former Gov. Bruce Rauner leads prosecution to end “collection fees” imposed on local governments and RTAs. His 1.5% fee on sales tax revenue amounts to tens of millions of dollars annually. Presumably, the fee covers the cost of collecting sales tax, but that’s an obligation on the Illinois Department of Revenue.
  • I am on the CTA. Not necessarily every day, mayors riding CTA can send a message that improvements are coming and that alone can lure riders back into the system. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel rode his CTA. So did former Governor Jim Edgar.
  • I’m looking for resources to enable Wi-Fi and cellular service throughout my system. This brings back riders who don’t like dealing with dead spots.
  • It will help find ways to run more Metra trains during the day, including semi-express trains, to accommodate workers’ schedules that don’t fit traditional commute times. Currently, freight train companies that use the same tracks as commuter lines prioritize commuter trains during the morning and evening rush hours. Use that time to move cargo. The issue will be on the table for negotiations, just as Canadian Pacific’s acquisition of Kansas City Southern is expected to bring more freight trains through the Chicago area. But doing nothing is not an option.

Adapting Metra’s schedule to the way people work these days will help attract more people to the central business district, benefit the city, and help fill Metra’s coaches. In the past, Chicago’s mayor has tended to act like the Metra doesn’t operate in the city, although the city is where his third of the railroad’s stops are. A healthy rail system also reduces congestion on the roads.

a long way to go

Before the pandemic, nearly 70% of people working in the central business district used public transportation. Many riders are essential workers who depend on transportation. All the big legacy systems in major cities are working to find ways to deal with the changes brought about by the pandemic, and new mayors would be wise to brainstorm with them to come up with answers.

Mayors will also face demands for system improvements that other governments want to see before agreeing to fork more money.

Ridership is Recovering from Pandemic Losses — 24% increase in CTAs and 70% increase in Metra last year — but we still have a long way to go. The new mayor will have a big role to play in making sure public transportation gets there.

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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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