Jan 18, 2024 - News

Chicagoland transit wants state help with looming budget crisis

Illustration of a city bus that says "Next Stop."

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Illinois lawmakers have returned to Springfield to face an enormous task: fixing metro Chicago's transit systems.

Why it matters: The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) — which oversees CTA, Metra and Pace — faces a $730 million budget shortfall, and service cuts could come if the gap isn't filled by 2026.

Driving the news: New recommendations to help stave off the deficit were delivered to state lawmakers last month in the hope they'd be used to help craft policy this 2024 session.

  • Meanwhile, the RTA is pushing for more state funding, especially as COVID relief funds dwindle.

Catch up fast: In 2022, the Illinois Legislature passed a measure that tasked the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), in concert with RTA, with coming up with recommendations for how regional transit agencies could become more financially stable, environmentally sustainable, equitable and efficient.

  • CMAP sent its finalized plan of action to Gov. JB Pritzker and lawmakers in December.

What they found: Transit agencies need "fare integration," which would allow one form of payment for CTA, Metra and Pace, and equitable pricing that doesn't hurt lower income riders, CMAP's report says. For example, the fares for Metra — often the only option for many suburban residents and far South Siders — are higher than CTA's.

  • The group is also urging prioritization of rapid bus lanes and front and rear boarding to make CTA and Pace buses more reliable and efficient.
  • Another idea: Apps to report cleanliness on buses and trains could force agencies to be more proactive.

Between the lines: CTA especially has been criticized for "ghost buses" that never show, smelly and dirty trains, and safety concerns since the start of the pandemic.

  • Some riders say it's caused them to resort to other means of transit, like driving.

By the numbers: Ridership across all RTA systems last year reached more than 320 million, which is just 60% of 2019 levels.

What we're watching: State Sen. Ram Villivalam, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado are leading legislative efforts to change the transit system.

  • RTA is also pushing to change a state law that mandates 50% of the agency's operating budget come from passenger fares, so they don't continue to take a hit with ridership's sluggish recovery.
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