Diverging Approach: Carrots and Sticks

Pace, like the rest of Chicago’s transportation agencies, faces some daunting capital funding challenges. However, Pace is doing something quite savvy: today, which also happened to be J.B. Pritzker’s inauguration, Pace got two pretty positive write-ups in both of Chicago’s newspapers of record, despite asking for $1 billion in new capital funding, posting a 3% slide in ridership, and openly cutting service including totally axing 12 routes.

They did it by talking up their recent improvements, touting their successful experiments with bus-on-shoulder, and getting some excitement building about launching Pulse service on Milwaukee Avenue (despite Pulse’s launch being two years later than expected). Pace’s I-55 service has exploded, with daily ridership up 750% since 2011. That’s not a typo — Pace ridership on I-55 went from 400 daily riders to 3,000 in eight years. (Well, it may be a typo: the Trib says it’s 750%; the Sun-Times says it’s 600%. Some digging through RTAMS would probably tell us who is correct, but right now we don’t need to dive that deep into the weeds.) The articles are a great example of an effective way to appraise the state of Pace’s operations and show how Pace as an agency is constantly reimagining and retooling their service to better serve their constituency through innovation and adaptation. One of the routes Pace is cutting, the 304, dates back to the days of streetcars through the near western suburbs, but that historic lineage isn’t enough to save a route simply hemmorhaging riders. No one wants to cut service, but when the agency can make a convincing case that (1) those riders will be otherwise accommodated and (2) the resources freed up by those cuts will be used to improve service elsewhere where capacity is limited, it’s a lot easier to accept.

(For what it’s worth, even though the Chicago region desperately needs north-south transit options west of Ashland Avenue, I’m a bit skeptical about how belt bus service would work on Interstates 294 and 355, but that’s a blog post for another time.)

Compare and contrast that approach with that other suburban transit board, which has been more or less going with a doomsday approach to trying to secure more capital funds, threatening significant (but unidentified) service cuts and continued fare increases for what more or less amounts to simply maintaining the status quo in terms of service schedules and service options moving forward. No one gets excited about only maintaining the status quo (especially when there are plenty of issues with current service anyway) and it’s a lot harder to drum up good press. It’s also a particularly bitter pill to read about Pace’s dramatic growth on the I-55 corridor the same day all Heritage Corridor service gets cancelled.

The good news is, at Metra’s Wednesday board meeting, there’s a chance to get people just a little more excited. Metra is (finally) releasing their Cost-Benefit Analysis, which looks at a whole bunch of Metra improvements and gives some data about, well, basic cost and benefit projections to help Metra prioritize their capital improvement plans moving forward. I don’t want to give too much away — I saw some earlier drafts back in my days working at Metra — but a lot of the pie-in-the-sky projects we transportation nerds discuss amongst ourselves are included, including some strategic triple-tracking projects and actually adding some real service to the Metra Electric.

Metra has a chance here to get people excited about capital improvement projects, and this blog certainly hopes the board sees the cost-benefit analysis as a way to publicly advance some bold, exciting plans. While we don’t advocate for all the projects in the cost-benefit analysis — a moratorium on line extensions further into the hinterlands should be seriously considered since projects like pushing the BNSF out to Oswego or Sandwich will just encourage more sprawl and make it more challenging to reduce headways in the middle zones where Metra sees most of their ridership anyway — it’s at least a starting point to see what’s realistic, what’s possible, and what would give our region the best bang for our capital buck. This will likely be more palatable to riders and potential riders as well, given that Metra’s more recent efforts to drum up support for new capital are somewhere between holding riders hostage (“look, nothing’s going to get any better unless we get a bunch of new money”) and extortion (“the service is fine for now, but it’d be a shame if something were to… happen to it”).

The cost-benefit analysis will be a good first step to making some real positive improvements to the Metra system, but all it is is a first step. Not following through on the projects, or going back to doomsday scenarios while this report languishes, should be considered a failure. Every project in the cost-benefit analysis will have some merit, and while Metra’s staff is doing the right thing by using a data-driven approach to help prioritize their plans, each of those projects will also need champions — both internal and external — to bring those projects to fruition. The cost-benefit analysis will be a huge asset for Metra and their staff should be proud of what it represents, but staff and the board need to make sure they stay excited and keep pushing these projects forward.

So to Metra’s staff and board: I just want to tell you both good luck — we’re all counting on you.


Speaking of Pace, our Pace Pub Crawl is this Saturday, January 19! You’ve read about Pace collaborating with the Illinois Tollway on the Interstate 90 corridor, so here’s your excuse to come on out and check it out first hand, and otherwise nerd out about suburban transit with us over food and drinks. The crawl starts at the Rosemont CTA station at 11:00am. Check out our Facebook event for more details!

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