A Metra Electric train rides along 71st Street in South Shore on Aug. 19, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A pandemic program that cut Metra fares in half on two rail lines serving the South Side is expected to continue in a different form, though officials don’t yet have details on the program’s future.

Cook County’s proposed 2024 budget would fund a “modified” Fair Transit South Cook pilot program through next year, county spokesperson Natalia Derevyanny said. The three-year pilot launched in 2021 and is set to end in January.

Fares on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines were cut by about 50 percent under the Fair Transit South Cook program. The cost of monthly passes was reduced by 30 percent.

Pace bus route 352, which travels along Halsted Street through the South Side and south suburbs, has also gotten extended hours and more frequent buses through the program, officials said.

With the original program’s end date in sight, county officials are discussing with Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority how to continue meeting the needs of lower-income riders, Derevyanny said.

It’s unclear what form a rebooted Fair Transit program would take.

“We anticipate having additional information available in the upcoming weeks,” Derevyanny said Friday.

Final approval of the county’s 2024 budget is expected in mid-November.

A Metra conductor looks out of the train car at the South Shore station in South Shore on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Ridership on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines remains 60 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels, but the Fair Transit program is a likely reason those lines recovered faster than the Metra system as a whole, according to a report recapping the pilot’s second year.

“The Fair Transit South Cook pilot has been successful in bringing fare affordability to the Southland and South Side of Chicago,” Derevyanny said.

CTA leaders have spoken with with Metra, Pace and Cook County officials about the Fair Transit South Cook program, spokesperson Brian Steele said. He did not give specifics about how the Chicago system may be involved in future versions of the program.

The program’s planned extension comes as Metra prepares to overhaul its fare structure, making most trips equal to or less than current prices.

One-way trips to Downtown stops — Ogilvie, Union, LaSalle Street, Millennium, Van Buren and Museum Campus-11th Street stations — would cost $3.75-$6.75 under the rail service’s 2024 proposed budget.

One-way trips that don’t start or end Downtown would cost $3.75 to encourage non-Downtown travel, according to the agency. The flat fee would apply regardless of distance, making a trip from Ravenswood to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the same price as a trip from South Shore to Stony Island.

For a full breakdown of proposed changes to Metra fares, click here.

A map of proposed Metra fares starting in 2024. One-way trips to and from Downtown (in red) would cost $3.75 for stops in blue, $5.50 for stops in yellow and $6.75 for stops in green. All trips that don’t start or end Downtown would cost $3.75. Credit: Metra

Metra in February committed to continue exploring how to “fully integrate fares” with the CTA and Pace, though that’s a “complicated and expensive project,” spokesperson Michael Gillis said.

Metra recently began installing new ticket vending machines, which is “one of the foundations” for fare integration as they’ll eventually be able to accept Ventra payments, Gillis said.

Transit fare integration is “a top priority” for county board President Toni Preckwinkle, as fare integration “would help the three transit agencies function as one transit system,” Derevyanny said.

“Making it easier to transfer between different agencies’ services would make it feasible to take transit for more kinds of trips, increasing ridership,” Derevyanny said. “Discounts on transfers between agencies would also have a significant equity benefit.”

Combining Metra, CTA and Pace fares into one system would cost up to $150 million up front and at least $10 million annually, according to estimates from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

State, county and local funding is crucial to fare integration efforts, as “the transit agencies can’t do it alone,” Steele said.

The Ventra card and app have “already made great progress” toward fare integration by reducing the cost of transfers between the CTA and Pace, officials told the Daily Line last year.

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