A letter from Leanne Redden, executive director, Regional Transportation Authority.
For the last year, the RTA has been focused on sustaining critical transit service through the pandemic while preparing for recovery. Like so many other industries, we’ve learned a lot during this difficult year, and no lesson more so than that achieving sustained economic recovery for the Chicago region will require continued investment in our public transportation system.
Last fall the RTA and all three Service Boards — the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace — began our three-step COVID recovery strategy to preserve essential transit services during the pandemic and set the stage for long-term recovery from its impacts. Step 1 involved adopting a regional transit budget, as a nearly $500 million operations gap was filled by passage of the second federal COVID relief package. Step 2 defined Critical Need Areas and a transparent, accountable process for allocating those funds to ensure service for those who need it most.
During Step 2, we also conducted a region-wide ridership survey, as covered by multiple media outlets just last week. Those results are revealing: More than half of current riders said they are satisfied with service during the pandemic, and 80 percent of “lapsed” riders indicated they will return to riding as the pandemic recedes. Respondents also confirmed ridership will continue to be affected by telecommuting patterns, which seems likely to continue at higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The satisfaction current riders have with the system is a testament to the culture of COVID prevention created by the transit agencies to protect the health of riders and staff alike. The Service Boards’ agile response has included upgrading air filtration, sanitizing buses and trains daily, and requiring passengers and staff to wear masks. To support this effort, the RTA and Service Boards will kick off a collaborative marketing campaign in mid-May reminding all transit users to remain vigilant by continuing to wear masks and ride responsibly.
The survey reinforced our Step 2 geographic analysis of Critical Need Areas: Transit service is indispensable for essential on-site workers, African-American workers, and people with lower incomes. Since the earliest days of this pandemic, when so much was unknown about virus transmission, the staff of the CTA, Metra, and Pace have continued serving essential workers. This has truly been a case of heroes transporting heroes. This is information we’ll take into our strategic planning effort as we continue efforts to increase access to transit for those who most need it.
The survey also confirmed RTA’s analysis since March 2020, when the RTA COVID Transit Dashboard began tracking the effects on ridership, revenues, and other trends. As the dashboard shows, ridership has rebounded to only about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels. As a result, farebox revenues as of January 2021 were down 72.1 percent for CTA, 92.4 percent for Metra, and 63.2 percent for Pace. The federal relief we’ve received so far will go a long way toward making up for this lost revenue, which is essential to fund the daily operation of the system, but it will not last forever, especially if some of our riders don’t return, as the survey indicates.
Riders also said most transit trips are being skipped rather than replaced, and car trips overall have remained steady rather than increased. But, as vaccines make commuting more common again, if people trade transit for automobiles, the result will be significantly increased traffic congestion. In the pre-COVID world, congestion cost the region billions per year in wasted time and fuel and environmental damage.
The path to economic recovery is not through increasing congestion on our roads. The pandemic has reinforced public transportation’s importance to our region. CTA, Metra, and Pace are the key to bringing people back to the Loop and other regional destinations for work, entertainment, and recreation without the negative consequences of gridlock.
In the coming months, the RTA will embark on Step 3 of our COVID recovery strategy: development of the region’s new five-year strategic plan for the transit system. We are committed to innovation in this process, which is a further opportunity to carefully and transparently evaluate systemic needs, so scarce resources can be directed for maximum benefit. My bi-weekly COVID Update newsletter will inform you about ways you can be engaged, and I encourage you to share it with others who you think should be part of this process.
While we work to understand COVID’s lasting impacts, this is certain: For our region to recover, we need sustained investment in the transit system, which has always been and will always remain critical to the region’s economy, environment, and quality of life. We hope that you will follow our progress here and via our newsletter as we continue this work.