Happy Halloween! In addition to tricks and treats, today marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of the CTA Orange Line. Like all birthdays after a certain age, this one is bittersweet: it’s great that Chicago has been able to boast rapid transit connections to two airports, but it’s also a bit depressing that the Orange Line represents the most recent actual expansion of the ‘L’. (The Pink Line was formed in 2006 using existing parts of the Green Line, the Blue Line, and a reconstructed non-revenue track called the Paulina Connector.) The Orange Line is unique: it’s the CTA’s first ‘L’ expansion that didn’t run in the median of an expressway since the expressway network was built in the 1950s and 1960s, although early plans did call for a rapid transit line in the median of the Stevenson Expressway.
The history of the Orange Line is a curious one, with a significant amount of its funding provided by the killed Crosstown Expressway project. In 1972, Governor Richard Ogilvie campaigned for re-election heavily on making the Crosstown come to fruition; he lost 51%-49% to Dan Walker, who campaigned to kill the Crosstown. (While a single highway project generally isn’t enough to swing a governor’s race especially after Ogilvie pushed through Illinois’s first state income tax, given how close Walker’s margin of victory was and how many Illinois voters are concentrated in Chicago and Cook County, it’s not unreasonable to consider the Crosstown being a decisive issue in the race.) The final nail in the coffin for the Crosstown came with the election of anti-Crosstown Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne in 1979 (who, coincidentally, also won by a 51%-49% margin). Mayor Byrne led the charge to use funds for the Crosstown to expand rapid transit to the Southwest Side, although the funds wouldn’t be designated as such until 1986 when Congressman William Lipinski called in a favor from President Reagan after Lipinski voted to support aiding the Contras in Nicaragua. Mayor Byrne also used some of the Crosstown money to extend the Blue Line to O’Hare, although she also reportedly pressured the CTA to build the extension to go straight into the terminals rather than leave space for a future extension (like at Midway) in order to expedite construction before the mayoral election. Mayor Harold Washington ended up cutting the ribbon on the O’Hare extension anyway.
If there’s one thing to take away from this brief history, it’s that we named a train station after a governor who wanted to expand our expressway network (and later served on a panel that tried to kill Amtrak’s public subsidy) and we named a freeway interchange after a mayor who killed a highway project to expand our rapid transit network.
Welcome to Chicago politics.
(Ogilvie wasn’t really a bad guy – Ogilvie Transportation Center bears his name because he helped form the Regional Transportation Authority and was a long-time railroader who successfully steered the Milwaukee Road through bankruptcy to form the Wisconsin Central. He also happened to be a Purple Heart veteran from World War II, helped fight the Chicago mob, and guided Illinois through a new state constitutional convention.)
Does the average Metra rider see Eisenhower-era cars as a hot enough fire that needs putting out with new taxes? Do CTA riders see perennially-postponed line extensions as simply the cost of doing business when the CTA has a pretty impressive track record at reinvestment in the fleet and the existing infrastructure? Do Pace riders take the cut routes as simply an evolution in travel patterns as Pace focuses on more “premium” service on I-55 and I-90?
But why did (well, does: I know I generally just shout into the void) that advocacy vacuum exist? Sure, there’s the @OnTheMetra crowd, but that Twitter presence doesn’t exactly translate to riders calling out Metra board members or showing up at Metra board meetings. Yes, their voices are being heard on Twitter, but it’s Twitter, one of the least-productive places on the Internet. Even the CTA doesn’t really have a dedicated rider’s union or advocacy group that exists out in New York or Los Angeles or D.C. or Boston. Sure, we have the Active Transportation Alliance, but Active Trans’s focus is overwhelmingly on, well, active transportation modes such as biking and pedestrian issues; transit is mostly an afterthought (although, to be fair, walking and biking are the two best ways to get to and from transit, so it’s obviously not entirely unrelated).
In light of all this, we have to consider an unfortunate truth that has probably never before been written about government units in Illinois: Are we too good at saving money? Does our transit network work TOO efficiently? Have our transit providers sufficiently managed expectations to a point where as long as a bus or train shows up when it’s supposed to and gets us where we’re trying to go in a decent amount of time that we just kind of roll with it? Unlike D.C. or New York, we haven’t had to have long-term line shutdowns for maintenance (and when we do, it’s for a total reconstruction). Unlike San Francisco, when new stations open, they aren’t almost immediately shuttered due to shoddy construction.
But all that is just enough for us to get by, and not enough to truly modernize or have a system befitting a Global City in the 21st Century. Ridership is falling because we’re too busy trying to shove our 1990s square-peg infrastructure and service patterns into a 2010s round-hole region.
To be clear: there’s still so, so much our transit agencies can do with existing resources today that will bolster ridership and improve traveler satisfaction without additional help from Springfield or Washington, and that’s what I’ll keep advocating for here on this blog. I was more than a little dismayed at last month’s Metra board meeting, where a particular board member (Director Baldermann of Will County, starts around the 32-minute mark) expressed serious concerns about spending $350,000 a year for two years on a reverse-commute public-private partnership pilot project (Metra’s 2018 year-to-date operating budget is $19.7 million favorable to budget; both years of the pilot would cost Metra 3.6% of the extra money the board didn’t think they’d have right now) and followed up by going straight to potential “entire line” cuts instead of common-sense cost-neutral schedule modifications to grow ridership such as downtown pulse scheduling, coordinated transfers with Pace, or shorter weekend evening headways. (The irony of Will County’s representative making these comments when the Heritage Corridor and the southern tip of the SouthWest Service are almost certainly high on the potential cut list wasn’t lost on me.)
That said, we all know Metra can’t cut their way to prosperity, but also it’s important to acknowledge that just jockeying the same old trains around without actually adding any service will not generate a high level of sustainable ridership increases and revenues needed to keep Metra abreast of the demographic and workplace changes happening in our region. Our transit network is only treading water while the world moves on without us. The transit boards are sounding the alarm. The think-tanks are sounding the alarm. I’m sounding the alarm to our 56 fans on Facebook and 109 followers on Twitter. (Again: screaming into the void.) Our region can not afford to fall into the death spiral that other regions are dangerously approaching, and there’s absolutely no urgency from people outside of our professional transportation bubble. The region needs more of us – all of us, not just the usual transportation echo chamber – to demand more from our elected officials and to remind them that Chicago isn’t Chicago without the ‘L’, without our buses, and without Metra shuttling suburbanites to and from downtown.
Eventually, that will change. Something will inevitably happen that reminds our neighbors and our leaders why investing in our transportation network is imperative for our region’s success.
Correction, 10/9/18: This month’s board meeting is today instead of Wednesday, for whatever reason. This post has been updated accordingly.
This WednesdayTuesday is Metra’s next board meeting, and all eyes are going to be on the proposed 2019 budget. The budget will outline any proposed service cuts, a doomsday the board warned us about last month when they also pledged not to raise fares next year. I’m very interested in seeing what Wednesday Tuesday holds, but I’m going to use this post to talk about something else on the agenda that is, dare I say, a little progressive:
Metra wants to do a public-private partnership with a consortium of Lake County businesses to strengthen their reverse commute options on the Milwaukee North.
That’s… awesome. For any other transit agency this would be just an interesting development to keep an eye on, but for Metra this is a BFD. This pilot project – assuming the board approves it – hits the trifecta of things we’ve been pushing for: (1) more frequent trains that (2) reflect evolving commuting patterns in the region while (3) finding innovative financial solutions to make it happen.
To be clear, it’s not perfect. First and foremost, I’m sure the public-private partnership (P3) funding scheme for the pilot will get lots of press, and rightly so. But the future of transportation funding should not be focused strongly on P3 funding. Our public agencies operate at a loss in order to provide a service to its constituents; private companies operate to maximize profit to their shareholders. Sometimes there are projects that fit squarely in the middle part of that Venn diagram where both sides prosper (usually by the private side infusing needed capital for public-agency improvements and getting a portion of the generated revenue as a return on investment), but sometimes the two sides have differing objectives that often – not always, but frequently enough – leave the taxpayers holding the bag since most P3s limit the risk exposure from the private sector in order to make the project more financially feasible for investors. (See: parking meters, Chicago.)
There’s also the added wrinkle of transportation equity: a P3 pilot along the Milwaukee North corridor is possible because of the wealthy communities and businesses in the Lake-Cook Road corridor, but my fear would be a similar pilot that would serve a significant number of workers heading to a less-prosperous area – say, reverse commuting to the O’Hare area on the NCS or to Joliet on the Rock Island or Heritage Corridor – failing to get off the ground since there’s less political and financial capital to spend.
In Metra’s defense, the proposed P3 arrangement looks to be pretty solid and straightforward: Metra pays half of the annual operating expenses ($350,000 of $700,000) and $1 million towards $4.75 million of track improvements, with the private sector (Lake County Partners) paying the rest. In return, if the two-year pilot proves fiscally feasible, Metra will continue operating the service. This particular corridor already sees a significant number of reverse commutes, and it’s terrific that those businesses and communities sees the potential benefit of expanded Metra service to serve their workers.
Of course, Metra is still Metra, so the proposed evaluation is written, in my opinion, too conservatively: for the project to be considered a success, the new trains need to show a ridership increase of 300 riders a day (148,300 annual trips, or a total of 600 new daily rides on 255 workdays a year, at an average fare of $4.72 which comes out to almost exactly $700,000) AND new fare revenues of at least $700,000, so they’re covered in case the per-rider average fare doesn’t pan out. The pilot evaluation is also written to discount cannibalizing ridership on the Union Pacific North, so UP-N existing riders changing to theoretically more convenient MD-N trips won’t count towards the pilot’s success. In other words, Metra is demanding a 100% farebox recovery on this pilot, even though operational revenues are budgeted at 55% of expenses and farebox recovery is currently 54.4%. If the pilot was held to the same standard of the rest of the network, all the pilot would need to be successful is 160 new round-trip riders daily (160 x 2 x 255 x $4.72 = $385,000 = 55% of $700,000), which isn’t much more than Metra expects within the first year.
I’ll be able to dive deeper into the proposed additional service on Wednesday Tuesday when more details about schedules, publicity, and branding will presumably be made available. In the meantime, I’m genuinely excited about this, especially since I’m not expecting much in the way of other good news to come out of Wednesday Tuesday’s board meeting. This is a huge step forward for Metra, and this blog wholeheartedly endorses this kind of innovation pushing the envelope at Metra, even if we have a reservation or two. But Metra’s staff deserves credit for working out the details with Lake County Partners to get this in front of the board, and we strongly encourage the board to approve the item on Wednesday Tuesday.
(P.S. – If anyone on the board is reading this and has any heartburn about a proposed $700,000 increase in operating expenses should the pilot prove successful, please take note of CFO Farmer’s monthly financial report which will show – once again – that Metra’s operating budget is favorable to budget this year to the tune of $20 million, just through August. I’m sure he’d be able to find the $700,000 somewhere, or maybe set aside some of the end-of-year favorable operations budgeting to other pilot programs or at least fewer service cuts.)
Today is October 1. It’s the first day of Halloween month, that classic holiday where people either try to scare their peers, try walking in a different set of shoes for a day, or they simply don’t like having fun.
Today, I did all three of those things: I commuted. From a suburb. To another suburb.
Okay, pick your jaws up off the floor. This is important, because according to the Census, in 2015 a full 2.3 million people in the Chicago region live in the suburbs and commute to a different suburb for work. That doesn’t even include reverse commuters who live in Chicago proper and work out in the suburbs. Combine those statistics with Metra’s lackluster reverse-commute offerings in much of the region, and the simple fact that most suburban job centers are far from Metra stations anyway, and it’s easy to see how important a successful suburban bus network is to allow suburban workers to commute if they don’t (or choose not to) own a car.
Today I put my money where my mouth is and commuted to IDOT’s District 1 office in Schaumburg, where I had some early morning meetings. (I’m usually at that office once a week, but generally I use a state vehicle to commute between the Chicago office and the Schaumburg office.) The office is located a little bit west of Roselle Road off Central Road, immediately north of Interstate 90. It’s in a great location if you’re driving there from almost anywhere in the region, although ironically it’s not directly accessible from state highways — Roselle Road and Central Road are both Cook County highways, and that stretch of Interstate 90 is part of the Illinois Tollway. There is a single Pace bus line nearby: Route 696 serves the intersection of Roselle and Central Roads, and it’s a tolerable seven-minute walk to the office.
On the map, a transit commute between my home in southern Forest Park should be a slam dunk: the 696 serves the Northwest Transportation Center off Martingale Road, and I live not far from the Forest Park Blue Line terminal. Find the route that connects the two transit terminals and it’s easy as that.
But of course it’s not actually that easy. I completed my workday with round-trip commuting on Pace — but to do so, I had to ride NINE different Pace buses throughout the day. For both commutes, I actually was pretty fortunate transferring between lines: I never had to wait more than about five minutes at transfer points. (Pace, unlike some other transit agencies, understands how a conscious effort to have coordinated transfers greatly extends the reach of your network when frequency is low and headways are high.) Some of my experience is almost certainly unique to my individual situation: the District 1 office is basically on an island when it comes to lunch options, so I was back on the 696 to get to and from somewhere to grab food. But there are plenty of areas of Schaumburg (and Oak Brook, and the Lake Cook Road corridor, among others) with similar issues, and I was fortunate enough that Pace was an option at all.
So here’s how I commuted today. Here’s the regional RTA map (that will open in a new tab) if you want to follow along.
6:40am: Leave home. ($0.00) Without doxxing myself, I live in the southern half of Forest Park, about halfway between the Eisenhower and Roosevelt Road, and halfway between Harlem and Desplaines Avenues. If I was lazy, I could’ve walked down to Roosevelt and grabbed what would end up being my 10th bus of the day to get to the Forest Park Blue Line station, but instead the weather was decent so I walked the 15 minutes or so to the station to grab the bus.
7:00am: Board Pace #757 at Forest Park. ($2.00/$2.25) I travel on a 30-day CTA/Pace monthly pass, but for kicks I’m going to keep track of how much today would’ve cost me if I didn’t have a pass. The blue figure shows how much it would cost using pay-as-you-go on a Ventra card; the green figure shows how much it would cost using cash. The 757 is really the only long-distance express bus that serves the Forest Park station, which seems like a potential missed opportunity for people who live and work out in the Oak Brook area. (The 301 serves this connection, but it’s a local bus that slogs down Roosevelt Road.) The 757 shoots up Interstate 290, then serves the Route 83 industrial corridor in Wood Dale, Bensenville, and Elk Grove Village before cutting up Higgins and Arlington Heights Roads to serve the random corporate buildings on Golf Road in Rolling Meadows before heading to the Woodfield area. Well, most buses continue to the Woodfield area: there are only five round-trips offered each weekday, and a single westbound trip ends at Golf and New Wilke Roads instead of continuing onto Woodfield. Take a wild guess which bus fit in my schedule.
7:55am: Transfer to Pace #208 on Golf Road. ($2.30/$4.50) I opted to get off the bus at “Golf/Traffic Signal/Wal-Mart” (the official name of the bus stop) to wait for the next westbound bus, which would be either the 208 or the 606. It really doesn’t matter, since both routes end up at the Northwest Transportation Center; the 208 came first. The 208 does some heavy lifting for Pace, linking the Woodfield area to Evanston via Golf Mill mall and three Metra lines. With half-hourish headways seven days a week from early morning through evening, it’s basically as good as a more traditional suburban arterial bus route gets. This is also a good time to point out that transfers cost 30 cents on Ventra but aren’t available at all if you’re paying cash, which means it’s extremely important to have a Ventra card for suburban bus trips. And, of course, Ventra retailers aren’t exactly common in the suburbs: all of Elk Grove Village, for example, has only one retailer that sells Ventra cards: ironically, a gas station.
8:19am: Transfer to Pace #696 at the Northwest Transportation Center. ($2.60/$6.75) I’ll end up on the 696 three more times before the day is done, since it’s the only bus that comes close to the IDOT office. The 696 is basically the opposite of the 208: a low-frequency bus that just kind of meanders around to cover a lot of ground at the expense of travel time. It checks a stereotypical list of suburban destinations — a courthouse, a community college, a commuter university, one Metra station, and two malls.
8:35am: Exit the bus and walk to the office. I end up arriving around 8:40am, close enough to my 8:30am start time and definitely in time for my 9:00am meeting, so mission accomplished.
11:45am: Leave the office for lunch. I was a bit concerned when I left the office at 11:45am: I wanted to leave five minutes earlier but got caught up wrapping up a few emails. The 696 was scheduled to be back at Roselle/Central at 11:52am, and the following bus wouldn’t arrive until around 1:30pm, which is far later than I was willing to wait to get food. Interestingly, the District 1 office was built with a fully-functioning kitchen and cafeteria on the first floor, but decades of belt tightening combined with, well, everyone has a car and there’s no shortage of places to grab lunch in Schaumburg reduced the cafeteria to an odd unstaffed convenience store setup where cameras watch you self checkout whatever bagged snacks or any of the handful of pre-made sandwiches and salads you wanted. Either way, sticking around the office wasn’t really an option for lunch, so I was back on the 696.
11:54am: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central. ($4.60/$9.00) Correction: now I’m back on the 696.
12:00pm: Arrive at Portillo’s on Golf Road. When in Rome.
12:45pm: Leave Portillo’s. Unfortunately the bus doesn’t come for another half hour or so, but the weather is nice so I decide to walk along Golf Road and wait for the bus to catch up to me. Golf Road in Schaumburg is a pretty crappy place to be a pedestrian, by the way. Since I’m on Pace time, I have to take a long lunch and will be losing out on a half hour of comp time. A small price to pay for my art, I suppose.
1:10pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Remington. ($6.60/$11.25) The bus took longer than I expected, so I walked a little further than I expected and sweated a little more than I expected as well. Feet are a bit sore.
1:13pm: Exit the bus and walk to the office. Glad I have a 30-day pass, otherwise I’d be a little pissed about paying $2 for a four-minute bus ride. But it covered a lot of ground and crossed over the tollway, so I suppose it’s worth it. Hashtag suburbs. Also, here’s a quick panorama of the signalized crossing at Roselle and Central.
4:30pm: Leave the office to head home. My workday officially ends at 5:00pm, but the 696 schedule is having none of that: the bus comes at about 4:37pm or around 5:55pm, so choose wisely. I choose to burn another half hour of comp time and try to get home at a decent hour.
4:38pm: Board Pace #696 at Roselle/Central ($8.60/$13.50) I notice two people on this bus who were also on the 208 and transferred to the 696 with me this morning. The bus is surprisingly crowded with people headed back from Harper College.
4:56pm: Transfer to Pace #600 at the Northwest Transportation Center ($8.90/$15.75) Now, if I wanted to, I could’ve hopped back on the last 757 of the day, which departs the Northwest Transportation Center at 5:00pm. However, (1) I’d rather try a route I didn’t already try; (2) I wouldn’t mind checking out Pace’s new I-90 services (although the 600’s been around for awhile); and (3) I wanted to see what my options were if the 696 ran late and didn’t allow for the 757 connection. The 600 is a great route: express between the Northwest Transportation Center and the Rosemont Blue Line. That’s it. No weird loops, no long gaps in service, just a straight shot down the tollway, every 15 minutes, all day long. I don’t make a habit of complimenting our suburban transit options too often around here, but I must say I was definitely impressed by the special fleet Pace uses on the I-90 corridor now. Comfy seats that recline, reading lights and vents at every seat, and a USB charger (although it’s a little hidden, so you kind of have to know it’s there).
5:35pm: Transfer to Pace #303 at the Rosemont Blue Line ($9.20/$18.00) As great as the 600 was, that’s as bad as the 303 is during rush hour. Seriously, what an awful experience the 303 was. It felt like most of the trip was spent standing still: it took at least three signal cycles for the bus to make the right turn from southbound River Road to westbound Irving Park Road in Schiller Park; we got stuck for a freight train in Franklin Park (not unusual); and it took a good five minutes to make a single left turn from southbound 25th Avenue to eastbound North Avenue. It was a solid hour of grinding through the inner tier suburbs, and served as a constant reminder of why people hate traveling on buses.
6:45pm: Transfer to Pace #301 at the Forest Park Blue Line I left off the prices for this trip because honestly it was a transfer of convenience: I was hungry, there’s a Portillo’s at Desplaines and Roosevelt (I know, Portillo’s twice, living the dream) that’s definitely walkable, but it was a cross-platform transfer and I have a monthly pass, so why not?
Takeaways over take-out
I ended up getting home around 7:30pm after grabbing a quick dinner. It dawned on me that I had spent about four and a half hours to work a six and a half hour shift that cost me an hour of comp time to make the buses work. I live in an area pretty well-served by transit, and I was going to an area just outside a major suburban job center, and my workday was 70% longer because of my commute. This was a one-off occasion for me, but as we previously discussed, it’s not exactly unheard of for people to live in one suburb and commute to another: statistically speaking, it’s the norm. Transit agencies wonder why telecommuting continues to become more and more common and why transit is hemmorhaging ridership, especially on the bus side of the house. “Must be Uber and Lyft!” the thinking goes. Or — and bear with me — it’s because service is lackluster, travel times are too long, reliability is sketchy, and frequency is crap.
I’ll admit, as a transit advocate who also happens to be an IDOT employee — but not speaking on behalf of IDOT, of course — our agency is working on becoming a better partner for transit, but we still have light years to go. (“It’s a big ship, and it’s hard to turn around,” Secretary Blankenhorn said at last week’s American Planning Association state conference, “but I hope we’ve at least gotten it to the point where it’s harder to turn it back in the direction we used to be headed than it is to keep moving forward.”) Things that make bus service more reliable and easier to operate, such as dedicated facilities and improved signal coordination or pre-emption, fall squarely in our wheelhouse. While we’ve made some progress with bus-on-shoulder throughout the region, it’s good to see Pace is reaching out to other partners such as the Illinois Tollway to get more progressive transit infrastructure in more innovative ways.
But, as usual, there’s other issues that we can probably make incremental progress on right now. First and foremost, let’s check back in on the cost for non-pass holders. If I didn’t have a 30-day pass on my Ventra card, I would be out $9.20 for a single day’s worth of trips. And then the cash price was almost double that! Someone who doesn’t have a Ventra card would be out $18 just on transit fares alone. A 7-day pass is only $15 more expensive, but you’d need to have a Ventra card first. Even still, $9.20 is not a small amount of money for a daily expense, but it’s still easier for some people to spend $9.20 daily (imagine a server making the $4.95/hour minimum wage plus tips) than plunking down $105 all at once for a 30-day pass. This is where fare capping would be useful. We already have a “smart” system with Ventra; fare capping would be incredibly easy to roll out. In this case, a fare capped system would basically have everyone move over to using transit credit on their Ventra cards; no more dedicated passes. Then, fares are automatically deducted until you reach a certain price and time threshold. For instance, with a $33 7-day pass, instead of charging $33 at once, riders would be charged the same $2 per trip as they’re charged now, but when they hit $33 their rides are free for the rest of the week. Or a similar system for the $105 30-day pass. Or somewhere in between, where the first $33 is full-price and the next $72 has a per-ride discount of some sort. Fare capping is useful for two key reasons: first and foremost, it’s more equitable for lower-income workers who may not be able to afford the upfront cost of a pass but end up paying more with pay-as-you-go than the pass is valued at. But secondly — as I think I showed today — when you stop worrying about per-ride charges, you’re more inclined to use transit more often.
I’ll dive into more Pace-related discussions in future postings, I’m sure, and if you want to send me your ideas, go yell at me on Twitter. But in the meantime, I’m happy to say that I walked in the shoes of a Pace supercommuter today… although like most Halloween costumes, it’s a good experience to endure once a year and can be kinda fun if you’re in the right headspace, but it’s important to remember that being able to take the costume off at the end of the night is a luxury not everyone has.