THE LOOP — Letting commuters cheaply and seamlessly transfer between Metra and the CTA could be just the boost both transit agencies need as they struggle to attract riders back after years of relying on federal rescue funds to stay afloat, Cook County leaders said Tuesday.
But first, the CTA needs to get on board.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other senior county officials made the appeal during a back-to-back news conference and meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Transportation Committee on Tuesday as they presented results from the first year of the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot, a three-year program that the county launched in January 2021 to slash fares and boost service for residents of Chicago’s south suburbs.
As early as 2019, county officials hoped to loop the CTA into the pilot by working out a way to cut transfer costs for riders who hop from the Metra to the CTA, similar to the 25-cent fare paid by CTA riders who transfer from a train to a bus. But CTA leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot resisted, saying they did not want to support any initiative that threatened to bleed riders from the south branch of the CTA Red Line.
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The Fair Transit pilot didn’t attract many new riders, as its designers had hoped it would. But county leaders still trumpeted the initiative as a success, saying it meaningfully improved transit for thousands of riders who live in transit deserts.
Now, Preckwinkle and other county officials are not only pledging to see the pilot through to its conclusion, but they’re taking a second pass at the fare integration component that had been dropped from the original plan.
“I’ve often observed that the services offered by transit agencies are not as well integrated as they should be,” Preckwinkle said Tuesday. “Transit in the region should function as one system, rather than three separate ones. I call on the transit agencies to take the next step in our partnership to develop a truly integrated fare system.”
CTA representatives signaled an openness to restarting the conversation, but Lightfoot renewed her concerns on Tuesday.
South Cook pilot results
Starting on Jan. 1, 2021, Metra slashed fares in half for all riders on its Metra Electric and Rock Island lines, which connect downtown Chicago to the city’s south suburbs. The transit agency also expanded its weekday Metra Electric service by about 10 percent and nearly doubled the line’s Saturday service, and it expanded weekday train service on the Rock Island line by about 50 percent.
At the same time, the Pace Suburban Bus system tripled service on its No. 352 Halsted line. The line, which runs between the 95th/Dan Ryan CTA Red Line station and south-suburban Chicago Heights, is the most widely used route in the Pace system.
Cook County paid Metra more than $8 million last year and paid Pace about $1.3 million to enable the extra service and compensate for the reduced fares. The county budgeted $30 million through its new “Equity Fund” to see the pilot through to its scheduled conclusion at the end of 2023.
Ridership numbers for the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines wobbled and ultimately declined, from representing nearly 30 percent of Metra’s overall passenger load in January 2021 to less than 25 percent in November, the 28-page report found. But there was one bright spot, according to Supt. Jennifer “Sis” Killen of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways.
“The pilot is not the only variable in this period — return to work policies by downtown employers and return to in person classes…also did impact these ridership numbers,” Killen said. But the two south-suburban lines registered a “faster restoration of ridership” following the pandemic “compared to this the rest of the system.”
Ridership results were also underwhelming for the Pace Halsted bus line. The route posted just over 40 percent of its pre-pandemic numbers in December 2021, even lower than when the pilot started a year earlier. However, the report noted that the decline followed a broader downward trend across the Pace system.
Despite the lack of meaningful ridership gains, county leaders nonetheless consider the pilot to have been a success because of the time and money it has saved south-suburban riders. Killen pointed to surveys of riders who said the lower fares and higher service improved their commutes, including by saving them potential car trips.
“While that ridership did not increase as we focus on the quantitative side of this equation, the customer experience did, and we need to consider that a win,” Killen said.
Study of integrated fare system
The surveys also found that “improved transfers” between transit systems are “important to riders,” Killen said, saying the county will redouble its efforts to bring the CTA in on a potential fare integration project.
“While seamless transfers are important to everybody, it’s especially important to those who are trying to decide whether or not to take transit as we recover from the pandemic,” the county transit chief said. “So if we’re looking for a way to improve operability between Metra and other services, what could be a better time to be exploring these services than right now?”
Metra already administers “Link-UP” and “PlusBus” pass programs to make it easier for frequent riders to transfer between systems — but the passes are complicated and little-used, Killen said. She said the CTA and Pace are working to “consolidate” the two passes into one, which she called a sign that “we are moving in the right direction.”
But if the transit agencies came together to design a universal system that “makes transfers easier, simpler and cheaper,” Cook County residents “would be able to make trips and use transit more than they otherwise would,” she said.
Merging Metra’s fare collection system with those of Pace and the CTA would take coordination, time and money, Killen said. While all three systems use Ventra, Pace and the CTA use card tap systems while Metra passengers show app-based passes to ticket collectors. Merging the fare systems would likely involve Metra adopting a “new system of fare validation,” which would “come with a level of capital investment.”
But with a December 2024 deadline looming for the region’s transit agencies to spend the nearly $1.5 billion in collective aid they received from the American Rescue Plan Act, officials need to weigh every option to attract commuters back to all three systems, Killen said.
“Once the current federal support for transit operations ends, the stakeholders in our service area need to be ready for how we’re going to help our transit system recover,” Killen said. “This is something that our residents need. This is something our businesses need.”
Cook County Commissioner John Daley (D-11th) added his voice behind the idea during Tuesday’s meeting, calling fare integration “doable, and hopefully it can be implemented.”
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for planning has convened leaders of the CTA, Metra, Pace and the Regional Transportation Authority to discuss potential fare integration, county officials said.
Lightfoot, CTA sound note of caution
In a statement on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the CTA repeated a similar view the agency has expressed since the Fair Transit pilot was first formulated: a general willingness to work with the other agencies, but no commitment to fully merging the payment systems or making transfers cheaper.
The spokesperson wrote that the CTA “continues to work with Metra and Pace on advancing regional fare policies” and to advance Ventra, which has “provided the foundation needed to achieve fare integration.” They added that the Ventra has “already made great progress” toward fare integration by reducing the cost of transfers between the CTA and Pace, and by “exploring ways to integrate CTA and Pace’s account-based Ventra card with Metra’s paper tickets and mobile tickets.”
“Fare integration is a complex issue with myriad policy and technological considerations, as well as a need to identify sustainable, viable funding to make it a reality,” the statement continued. “The CTA continues to work with the Service Boards on the important goal of even further integrating regional transit.”
When Lightfoot was asked about reducing transfer costs between the CTA and Metra during an unrelated news conference on Tuesday, she was defensive, saying it would all come down to cost and the potential to poach riders from the CTA.
“Taking ridership from the CTA and giving it to Metra doesn’t make any sense to me,” Lightfoot said of the county’s Fair Transit pilot.
“But also, convince me there is a long-term funding stream for this,” the mayor added. “So I’ve been open to the conversation, I know [CTA] President [Dorval] Carter has been open to the conversation, but we’ve not been presented with a plan…that answers those two critical questions, which is what’s the impact on the CTA, and is there a long-term financial solution to this that doesn’t frankly add to the burden on taxpayers?”