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Cook County’s Transit Transformation

A countywide plan could make public transit more accessible for thousands of Chicago-area commuters. But first, it’ll have to navigate major hurdles.

The 57th Street Metra Station in Hyde Park   Photo: Antonio Perez Chicago Tribune

Activists and transit advocates have long argued that transforming South Side and south suburban Metra lines into rapid transit service could be a boon for areas suffering from disinvestment and population loss, providing equitable transit and better access to employment.

This year, they’ve gained a powerful partner in that vision: Cook County. After a recent study on mobility, county officials have proposed a pilot program targeting areas that currently have the least access to transportation among transit-dependent zip codes. The plan would add 22 more trains to the Metra Electric line each day and discount Metra fares in the south suburbs. On both the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines, the pilot would also reduce fares within city limits, matching CTA prices, and provide free transfers to Pace and CTA.

The county first publicly announced the plan at a June town hall in Harvey, home to the 147th Street and Harvey Metra Electric stations. Metra trains from the Harvey station take about 40 minutes to arrive downtown, but riders often opt for a much longer commute at the neighboring Harvey Transportation Center — taking a Pace bus to the Red Line — since it’s significantly cheaper and provides a free transfer.

“You’re standing waiting for that Pace bus, but you look up 40 feet in the air, and there goes one Metra Electric train after another,” says John Yonan, superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways. “If the only reason you’re not doing that is cost, then we’re in a place where equity, mobility, and inclusion is understood better than anywhere else.”

Since the announcement, the plan has been lauded by the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board and groups like the Metropolitan Planning Council and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Officials from the county, Metra, Pace, CTA, and the Regional Transit Authority have begun meeting monthly to iron out the details.

Yonan and Jim Derwinski, Metra’s CEO, both say it’s too early to provide a concrete timeline for the pilot, but they walked us through four challenges agency heads will need to tackle as they move the pilot program forward.

Money

Before the county’s plan emerged, Metra had long rebuffed demands for cheaper and more frequent service on the South Side, saying it was financially impossible. Legally required to balance its budget each year and already facing a major capital funding shortage, Metra wasn’t in a place to experiment with reducing fares and running more trains, Derwinski says. But now that Cook County is willing to provide a subsidy, Metra is enthusiastically sitting down at the table.

Yonan says the county has agreed to offset initial losses from lower fares. The county’s hope, however, is that the pilot program will ultimately be cost neutral, with increased system ridership compensating for lower fares. As one source of funding for the subsidy, the county is eyeing the proceeds from July’s motor fuel tax increase. (According to the state’s capital plan, twenty percent of the the tax’s revenue is earmarked for transit projects.)

Transfer technology

Currently, the CTA and Pace use the Ventra card system, and Metra riders pay with paper or electronic tickets that are checked onboard by conductors. As Derwinski points out, however, in order to make transfers free between different modes, Metra “stations or conductors have to be equipped with something that takes or gives that transfer.” Ideally, he says, users would be able to use one card for CTA, Pace, and Metra, with monthly passes also usable on all modes.

The agencies will also have to figure out how to split the revenue on the back end — a complicated task, because Metra’s fares are distance-based, while CTA and Pace fares are time-based, paying for a ride plus transfers within two hours.

Yonan said the county is looking at other transit regions that have successfully integrated payment for commuter rail and city transit into one system, like Seattle and Toronto, but he’s reluctant to provide further details. “It’s way too early to say we know exactly what that’s going to look like,” he says.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Mayor Lori Lightfoot shake hands at a Rainbow PUSH Coalition event April 3, the day after the mayoral runoff election. The erstwhile rivals are butting heads again, with Lightfoot staunchly opposing the county’s ambitious transit plan. Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

CTA ridership loss

Based on modeling from the county, the pilot program could cause CTA to lose about 30,000 daily riders to faster Metra trains. The long-term effects of that loss are unclear: Better Metra service could allow CTA to divert those resources to other underserved areas in the city, but losing a large chunk of ridership deincentivizes CTA from participating. (Like Metra, CTA is required to balance its budget every year.)

For the time being, at least, CTA believes the plan is “worthy of continued discussion,” acccording to a spokesperson. “We’ve all been involved in discussions over the last few months about the idea, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue.”

Yonan affirms that conversations with the CTA have been “productive.”

“They support some of our modeling, and they’re very much at the table doing some of their own modeling,” he says.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, however, has voiced misgivings about the program, which Crain’s Greg Hinz estimates could cost the CTA up to $15 million in lost revenue. In September, Lightfoot told the Tribune that “this particular proposal… causes problems for the CTA, and I’m not going to support something that would have the effect of diminishing ridership.” She doubled down on the sentiment in a conversation last month with Crain’s editorial board, saying, “I am not taking passengers from the CTA and putting them on Metra with a subsidy.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to request for comment on whether Lightfoot will support a plan that the CTA agrees to, even if it includes ridership loss, and whether she has alternate proposals for increasing ridership in the South Side.

Marketing

The county’s study noted that the Metra Electric District and Rock Island lines have 5.7 million fewer annual riders than they did in 2002. To make the pilot program successful, Derwinski says it would likely require an all-out marketing effort to let riders know that they can get on the Metra at a lower price.

“This is not something that you just turn on one day and hope it works,” he says.

One part of that effort may include making Metra stations more hospitable. In a survey of 73 attendees at the Harvey town hall, 18 percent of respondents said that “station safety improvements” would most influence their choice to ride transit, tying with “increased frequency on Metra” for the most popular option. Metra is already undergoing projects to renovate several stations on the South Side, making them ADA compliant and adding other improvements.

Yonan said that increasing Metra service will also be a great opportunity for transit-oriented development oriented around stations.

“When you have a transit station, the potential for community and economic development is huge,” he says.

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