Diverging Approach: Peanut Gallery

It’s budget season, and as expected, Metra’s proposed 2021 budget represents the ongoing struggles the commuter railroad is having during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not Doomsday yet — despite a $70 million projected hole in the budget, Metra is not raising fares in 2021. That’s not to say the outlook doesn’t still remain grim, of course: Metra’s anticipating only getting back to 50% of pre-pandemic ridership by the end of 2021, and not approaching 100% until 2024 at the earliest.

Recently, we’ve been cautiously optimistic about some of the things we’ve heard from Metra. After spending the beginning of the pandemic “innovating and transforming” themselves with drastic service cuts and proudly declaring that any riders whose workplaces have not reopened “are not a potential customer”, more recently a more progressive mindset appeared to emerge, with talk of exploring new fare options and developing more equitable service recovery plans that “must compete with the automobile” to look beyond Metra’s historic core constituency of white collar 9-to-5ers.

A quick read of the draft budget brings things back down to Earth.

The budget document kicks off with a whopper of a claim and a slap in the face to countless riders who were stranded by Metra’s total suspension of service during the George Floyd protests at the beginning of June. This blog discussed it; Streetsblog Chicago discussed it; the Active Transportation Alliance discussed it; and yet this is the actual first paragraph at the top of Page 1.

While the global pandemic has changed many things, one thing has remained unchanged: Metra’s commitment to the commuters and the communities we serve. From the beginning of the crisis to today, Metra never stopped running. We couldn’t. The essential role we play in the lives of our citizens and the economy of our region is simply too important.

Metra 2021 Proposed Operating & Capital Program & Budget, emphasis original

It goes downhill from there. The document is available here, but here’s what I think the important bullet points are in terms of operations:

  • Metra is projecting a $700 million operating budget with a $70 million shortfall in 2021. Absent additional aid from another unit of government (likely Congress), Metra will need a combination of cuts and fare increases to plug the hole since they are required by state statute to have a balanced budget. The $700 million operating budget represents a 15% decrease from the budgeted 2020 operating budget.
  • That $70 million hole does not include $51 million in CARES Act funding that is being carried forward to 2022.
  • Metra is anticipating rebounding to 20% of pre-pandemic passengers by the end of 2020; 50% by the end of 2021; and 80% by the end of 2022. Ridership is then forecast to stabilize at about the 80% level through 2023.
  • Service levels — as measured by vehicle revenue miles — are expected to remain at current levels through 2021, with service gradually increasing in 2022 and 2023, but remaining 15% below pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.

Despite the almost certain anemic ridership levels over the next few years, with guaranteed ongoing service cuts and as we adjust to a post-COVID world, Metra wants to spend $594.6 million over the next five years to start replacing and expanding their fleet of bi-level gallery cars, an obsolete design that nearly every other North American commuter railroad has evolved beyond the need for. (And make no mistake that this is a fleet expansion, not just a replacement: the budget specifically says the intent of the program is to “increase the spare cars ratio”.)

This blog has discussed the flaws of the gallery car design previously, but in a nutshell the major issues of the car involve a single entry/exit point per car that also requires traversing four steps, which increases station dwell times as passengers take longer to load and unload, while also creating more significant issues for disabled riders, the elderly, cyclists, families with strollers, riders with luggage, and just about everyone else. The biggest strength of the gallery car design is that you can fit a lot of riders on each coach and conductors can easily check each rider’s tickets, and if you think committing to a vehicle design that encourages more crowding and more face-to-face interactions is a little misguided following a year or more of social distancing and mandatory mask use during a global pandemic, you might be on to something.

Our friends over at Streetsblog Chicago have one of the more definitive takedowns of the gallery car style. The epilogue to that blog post is that Metra had to cancel a 2017 procurement because they literally could not find a suitable manufacturer willing to build gallery cars for them. The nearly-$600 million procurement Metra is currently planning is based on a 2019 RFP (request for proposals) that permitted additional coach design styles to be considered, and while a selected bidder has not yet been chosen, it appears that Metra is teaming up with Virginia Railway Express (VRE) — one of the only other commuter railroads that also still use gallery cars — to have a joint procurement of, you guessed it, more gallery cars. (If you do listen to that podcast episode, skip ahead to the 35th minute or so to listen to VRE’s executive director discuss the procurement and the gallery car style.)

In the 2021 budget, Metra wants to spend $61.6 million on new gallery cars. In the same year, Metra is targeting only 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels and a $70 million operations budget hole. This is not an argument against continuing to make important investments in state of good repairs during the pandemic recovery, but this gallery car order looks like the perfect opportunity to easily fill this short-term gap in funding: squeezing another year out of the old fleet while maintaining acceptable levels of service will have far better returns on investment in terms of long-term ridership and fares than shiny new coaches that may rarely run after draconian service cuts.

Furthermore, as a procurement launched pre-pandemic, it’s entirely possible — if not probable — that the onboard rider amenities scoped out in the original procurement are no longer relevant, or cater to the white-collar commuters who will make up a far smaller share of riders post-pandemic. Do we need cup holders if masks are mandatory onboard for the foreseeable future? Are additional armrests a good investment while the agency is spending $1 million on an ad campaign to remind potential riders how the agency is focusing on continually cleaning high-touch surfaces? With cycling up throughout the region, do we still want to commit to a fleet that requires bikes and disabled passengers to compete for space or do we want to create a more bike-friendly fleet like other peer agencies have done over the last decade? As Metra has said numerous times throughout the pandemic, ridership shifts “that would normally take 10-20 years seem to have occurred in 10-20 weeks.” Do we really want to commit to another five decades of gallery cars for nearly $600 million at this point in history?

To be clear, using capital funds to cover operational expenses is a dangerous game to play, especially given Metra’s history in doing so. However, there’s a significant difference in regularly using capital funds to plug systemic deficits in the operational budget and delaying a fleet expansion project during the most seismic societal shifts in our lifetimes to ensure a half-billion-dollar investment can be used for proper rolling stock on the railroad of the future, not on coaches that are parts of museum fleets. (Besides, Metra’s explicitly used fare increases since 2015 to help fund capital improvements, so it’s that much more unreasonable to ask ridership to once again pay through service cuts.)

Cancelling — or at least delaying — Metra’s $61.6 million capital outlay for new gallery cars in 2021 would fill 88% of the projected $70 million budget deficit; using an additional $8.4 million of CARES Act funding, or 16% of the $51 million of CARES Act funding Metra is planning on carrying forward to 2022, would entirely mitigate any service cuts in the absence of additional aid from the federal government. Deep service cuts right as ridership is just starting to return to Metra’s service post-pandemic will have far more dire long-term consequences to our region than just grinding out another year with the existing fleet. (Also note that Metra will still be spending nearly $70 million on rehabilitating and rebuilding locomotives and coaches in 2021.) In the meantime, Metra should use this opportunity to seek input from current and potential riders to better understand what a post-pandemic fleet should look like to cater to a more diverse base of ridership, rather than doubling down on an outdated 20th Century design now, 21 years into the 21st Century.

Metra’s draft 2021 budget is available to review here. As a draft document, Metra is seeking comment from members of the public via a virtual public hearing on Thursday, November 5, 2020, from 4pm to 7pm. Comments can also be submitted between now and 24 hours after the end of the public hearing via email.