Chicago was built around transit. CTA recently celebrated its 125th birthday. The rail lines that Metra runs on have been in operation for more than a century. A region of our size and density simply cannot exist without transit. Many other regions wish they had the network of trains and buses we do and are working hard to build out their systems. In a post-COVID world, we see that we need transit more than ever to battle climate change, address economic inequities, improve public health, reduce housing costs, and improve the safety of travel. But we have underinvested in transit for a long time. A transit funding cliff is looming: where do we go from here?
To have the future we want -- more money freed up in our household budgets; less stressful and dangerous travel; healthy air; better access to jobs, healthcare, and education; and slowing down the climate crisis – we must have the courage to reinvent and reinvest in transit. Now is the time. Federal relief funded transit operations when ridership plummeted during the COVID crisis, but that funding will sunset by 2025, leaving an operating budget hole of about 20%. Cutting service will not solve the problem – we would have to shut down about 40 percent of trains and buses, basically collapse the system. That is the exact opposite of what we need when ridership is rebounding. Investing in transit will support new travel patterns required in a post-COVID world that will enable the growth and vibrancy of our region for the long term.
We can modernize our transit system for a sustainable future where we are prepared to adapt and innovate. The Illinois General Assembly approved Public Act 102-1028, tasking the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) with developing legislative and policy recommendations for the future of the region's transit system. MPC’s Darlene Hightower was on the steering committee for the Plan of Action for Regional Transit (PART), which addressed:
- Financial viability and funding
- Rider experience
- Community and Economic Development
The recently released draft PART report documents the exciting potential future vision for transit in our region, what governance is needed to make that happen, and options for increased funding.
Governance reform is a must
Many issues have been developing for years that the current governance structure cannot address, because it is set up so each transit agency manages to its own bottom line. Planning occurs in silos. Who is looking out for the riders that need to transfer between services, or would like an integrated farecard so they pay only one fare for each ride? How are we innovating in the new post-COVID reality? The Regional Transportation Authority does not have enough power to solve these problems. We need to change the transit governance structure so that planning and project prioritization happen at a regional level, with an integrated and rider-centric perspective.
We can have better transit service
Governance changes must come in tandem with funding transit appropriately. To get the system we want, we need to fund it beyond filling the gap to keep the system we have. We can achieve a vision of safe, welcoming transit that gets people where they need to go throughout the region, not only to downtown Chicago. This includes regional rail offering frequent Metra travel in both directions; better buses, in the suburbs and city, including bus rapid transit (BRT) and a network of Pace Pulse+; improved demand-responsive services; and transit-supportive land use and development. We need to turn the page on chronic underfunding of our most sustainable and equitable form of transportation.
MPC and other stakeholders on the PART steering committee have been actively developing a viable proposal for state legislators who can institutionalize reforms via state legislation. MPC has taken a lead role along with other partners like Active Transportation Alliance, Center for Neighborhood Technology, and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago in educating state legislators on the issues we must address and potential solutions. CMAP voted on October 11 to send the report to the Illinois General Assembly. We will be working throughout the coming months with transit champions in Springfield to bring these reforms to fruition. We will need a wide range of stakeholders to speak up and support these exciting and ambitious changes in the coming months. Get ready to take action!