A fiscal cliff that threatens the Chicago region.
That’s what local leaders warn is coming without big changes to public transit funding and service. Lawmakers and advocates gathered Thursday morning to throw their support behind a bold plan to make transit more equitable, sustainable and efficient.
With CTA, Metra and Pace expected to have a combined $730 million budget deficit starting in 2026, state lawmakers passed a measure charging the regional planning agency CMAP to think big and come up with a plan to improve service, make buses and trains more accessible and make sure all the different bus and train lines effectively link up with one another.
The funding gap, which is expected to worsen every year without major action, is largely due to ridership that’s still far below pre-pandemic levels. Federal stimulus money that’s been making up for lost revenue is running out — and advocates say that in any case, transit has been underfunded for years.
State Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado (D-Chicago) was one of the sponsors of the measure calling for a transformational plan. Delgado said even people who don’t ride public transit rely on it — and if it faces huge service cuts, people won’t be able to get to their jobs, and traffic and pollution will worsen.
Delgado also said public transit is a necessity for many lower- and middle-income folks and Black and Brown Chicagoans.
“Transit at its core is about equity. It’s about providing service to everybody, regardless of where you live, who you are, how much money you make,” Delgado said, adding that many residents of her district on the city’s Northwest Side were essential workers who kept riding transit during the pandemic. “When I think of essential workers, I think of some of those folks who are at the lowest income bracket, but they still have to be able to get around.”
Among the goals of the plan: making transit more seamless across different modes and agencies; improving the speed and ease of bus travel; better linking Metra and CTA rail lines; and making transit safer and more accessible, both at stations and stops as well as via paratransit. Advocates said overhauling the system will draw back riders, but acknowledged that big changes take big money. The report also calls for up to $1.5 billion in new public transit funding.
“We know that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action,” said CMAP Executive Director Erin Aleman. “We are at a decisive and pivotal juncture with an opportunity to make a transformative change.”
“The longstanding underfunding of transit operations coupled with the unprecedented challenges spurred by the pandemic have brought us to a critical inflection point in transit’s history,” said city of Chicago COO John Roberson. “We cannot shy away from the scale of the funding needs our transit system faces. It is significant, but the value transit provides for the city and for our region is immeasurable.”
In addition to more funding, the plan CMAP came up with proposes unprecedented changes to the way transit is run. One option would give more power to the regional authority overseeing CTA, Metra and Pace.
The other, far bolder option would create a single regional transit agency, essentially combining the current hodgepodge of transit agencies into one.
“Even if our transit agencies work together well now, there have been many years — decades, even — in which the service boards were at cross purposes,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “In the system we now have, there are 47 board members across four boards appointed by 21 elected officials. It means that everyone and no one — no one — is responsible.”
The plan now goes to state lawmakers, with debate on the issue expected in the legislative session that starts next month.