Diverging Approach: Investing In Transit

John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago posted a good article today about Metra’s awful start to 2019 and the desperate need for more capital funding. It’s a good read if you’re unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations Metra’s dealt with this year (much of it beyond Metra’s control, including a freight derailment that knocked out the overhead catenary on the Metra Electric and Amtrak’s now-infamous clumsy employee who accidentally killed the Union Station signaling system for a day).

Metra’s Twitter account boosted the Streetsblog article with a thread about the need to solve the capital crisis Metra currently faces:

It’s good that Metra is taking their arguments for more funding straight to the people and encouraging more direct action to get a capital bill passed. To be clear: our region — and our state, and our nation as a whole — needs to invest more in transportation infrastructure at just about every level to keep the built environment safe and productive while providing healthier, more environmentally-friendly alternatives to driving that are efficient, practical, and useful. Metra’s rolling stock is downright ancient, and their current strategy of just going second-hand everything is obviously not sustainable.

It’s no secret: Metra’s capital needs are dire. The fleet experiences regular breakdowns; signal systems routinely cause significant delays; there are currently in-use bridges that are over 100 years old.

And Metra has used 0% of their bonding authority, in favor of trying to rally ridership to lobby Springfield on their behalf.

Now, there’s a definite argument for fiscal restraint in the face of an uncertain future. As Metra’s tweetstorm points out, we’re on the wrong side of a decade since the last state capital bill was passed, and “it is understandable fewer people choose to ride Metra when half our assets are in marginal or worn conditions”. But if the needs are so dire and the potential outcomes so negative, why not pull out the credit card for some fleet upgrades? Why teeter on the brink of a death spiral of increasing fares and decreasing ridership when Metra could finance some important capital improvements today that could start to turn the ship around? When the Better Government Association, a government watchdog charged with calling out wasteful government spending, publishes an editorial basically saying a unit of government isn’t taking on enough debt, it’s quite the statement.

But it’s also worth asking if more sustainable capital funds are the only thing that’s needed to save Metra. In other words, a sustainable capital funding source is no doubt important, but are outdated and unreliable infrastructure the primary causes of Metra’s ridership losses? Undoubtedly, it has no small impact on ridership (and rider morale); a quick perusal of @OnTheMetra‘s Twitter mentions will make that abundantly clear. But just a few years ago Metra rolled out a brand-new fleet on the Metra Electric line and the Electric Line is losing ridership faster than any other line, with a whopping 18.1% drop in ridership from 2014 through 2018. Will new locomotives and coaches boost ridership elsewhere in the system?

Metra, as an agency, was formed to bail out Chicago’s failing commuter rail network with public subsidies back in the 1980s. The state’s fatal flaw in creating the Regional Transportation Authority was setting up a (mostly) sustainable operations subsidy, but no corresponding capital improvement subsidy. That’s not Metra’s fault, of course; the CTA and Pace also have to deal with the lack of dedicated capital funding. Metra has done an absolutely stellar job of maintaining the Chicago commuter rail network since the 1980s, maybe to a fault: as the CTA and Pace innovate with new service patterns, new service options, and service expansions, Metra keeps grinding on with mostly the same network and very similar services it inherited. (While Metra is able to claim that they’ve opened a truly-new rail line more recently than the CTA has — the NCS opened in 1996 compared to the Orange Line’s opening in 1993 — since then the CTA has also totally rebuilt both branches of the Green Line, most of the Brown Line, what’s now the Pink Line, all of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, and is about to embark on a Red Line extension deeper into areas that would probably be better served by increased frequencies on the Metra Electric instead.)

If Metra was formed to bail out a fiscally-failing commuter rail model with public subsidies and now, 35 years later, finds itself in a fiscally-failing commuter rail model that requires additional public subsidies to bail itself out, perhaps now is the time to refresh that model as a whole. It’s okay to start small with incremental improvements: Metra needs a new fleet, no doubt about that, but a stronger pitch for more investment in transit includes what Metra will do more effectively with that new fleet, or plans Metra has to modernize their service that they can’t do because of capital limitations. A new fleet that pushes on-time performance from 92% to 96% won’t get anyone excited — nor should it, because that 4% is probably not why ridership is dropping. However, rolling out something like pulse scheduling — one of this blog’s favorite topics because it doesn’t really change operating costs but creates convenient transfer opportunities to expand Metra’s reach and passenger mobility throughout the region — alongside the reliability improvements a modernized fleet would bring to help guarantee convenient transfers could be made can turn some heads and pique some interests. Likewise, if Metra can pitch a capital improvement as making a significant positive impact on operating costs — like, say, a new fare collection system that would reduce the need for conductors — that proposal would likely be a lot more palatable to politicians regardless of political party. Metra has plenty of fun ideas in the queue to enhance or expand service systemwide, yet they stick with a message of maintaining a (declining) status quo as their lead argument to rustle up some new capital funds. Get people excited about the future and they’ll probably be more motivated to pick up the phone and call their representatives.

Increasing capital funding to Metra is a good idea, full stop. Our region depends on Metra, and investing in transit is a good investment. However, a new capital bill out of Springfield that lets Metra buy a few new trains, swap out a few signals, and replace a few bridges but doesn’t encourage Metra to update their operational structure to reflect the shifting demographics and travel trends in the Chicago region just kicks the can down the road a few more years and we’ll just end up in the same spot all over again. After all, a capital bill that brings Metra into the 21st Century is already 19 years out-of-date.