Diverging Approach: Power of the Purse

At February’s Metra board meeting, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) presented their draft recommendations outlying how the RTA plans to divvy up $486.2 million from Round 2 of the federal Covid-19 assistance package, which was passed in December. The RTA plans on using what they call Critical Need Areas (CNAs) to help allocate the financial assistance between the three service boards. These Critical Need Areas are identified throughout the region based on three factors. Here’s how the RTA defines these factors, quoted from their pretty spiffy interactive story map on the topic:

  • transit propensity, which considers who is most likely to use transit to commute before the pandemic and now;
  • regional equity, which explores who is most likely to need transit to access essential goods and services in our region in general; and
  • high-mobility industries, the industries most likely to need workers on-site and in-person to perform their jobs.

The full interactive story map is worth a read, so I encourage readers of this blog to check that out. But if you want to skip to where the rubber hits the road, here’s how the RTA wants to split up the cash:

  • Paratransit gets $20 million right off the top.
  • Of the remaining funds, CTA gets the lion’s share of the funding (77.5%, or about $350-360 million). Since the CTA didn’t really cut any service during the pandemic, even with this extra funding in place the RTA is projecting a $372 million deficit in the CTA’s budget.
  • Next up is Metra (17.9%, or about $80-83 million). It’s unclear how this impacts the existing $70 million operational deficit that was included in the FY2021 budget, but the RTA says even with these additional funds Metra will be in the hole somewhere between $70 and $155 million based on “full schedules”, since Metra sliced operations roughly in half during the pandemic.
  • Finally, Pace would get the remaining funds (4.6%, or $21-22 million). While this is the smallest wedge of the pie, it’s also enough to get Pace to a breakeven budget, according to the RTA’s memo.

These figures aren’t set in stone: the RTA is soliciting public input through this Friday (March 5), so if you’d care to make a comment about how the RTA is splitting the pot, you are encouraged to send your comments via email to communications@rtachicago.org.

The RTA’s Transit Critical Need Areas (CNAs). Screenshot from the RTA’s interactive story map.

First and foremost: the RTA needs to be commended for taking an equity-centric approach to distributing these important funds. Having a process that’s open, transparent, and data-driven to try to guide funds to the areas where they are needed is exactly the kind of approach our region needs to allocate funds more equitably, and here’s to hoping more of these types of interventions and guides are used moving forward for other purposes as well.

That said, Metra needs a bigger piece of the pie.

It’s clear from the numbers that all three service boards need far more assistance than what was provided in the last round of federal assistance, and we all have our fingers crossed that more help is on the way. It’s important to note that, since there’s a finite amount of funds available, boosting Metra’s percentage can only come from taking funds away from the CTA and/or Pace. However, a quick look at the map above shows that Metra’s services reach more than 18% of the identified CNAs throughout the region, and in areas where Metra overlaps with other transit services — such as parts of the City of Chicago south of 95th Street and in the Grand Avenue corridor west of Cicero Avenue — Metra is often the only rail transit provider in the area. This is especially important to consider along the Rock Island and Metra Electric lines, areas currently part of the South Cook Fair Transit pilot program that finally puts Metra closer to fare parity with the CTA. Furthermore, there are dozens of suburbs where Metra is the only transit service that reaches the City of Chicago, or the only transit service still operating at all. There’s an awful lot of suburban Chicagoland that’s highlighted as a CNA but beyond the reach of the CTA and with only limited service options provided by Pace.

The Metra board took the RTA to task for the “transit propensity” metric at the February board meeting, and while it’s true that historically Metra’s target clientele has always been white collar 9-to-5ers who probably have other transportation options available in a pinch, it’s also true that Metra needs more resources than it currently has to successfully transition from a commuter rail model to a more modern regional rail model that will be needed post-pandemic to broaden their ridership base beyond traditional commuters: as this blog has said in the past, riders can’t ride trains that don’t run. Regular Metra riders have already made significant sacrifices throughout the pandemic in the form of service suspensions/cuts, and every effort needs to be made to provide Metra with the resources it needs to start expanding service offerings again.

That’s not to say the RTA should just throw a few more bucks at Metra and call it a day, however: the RTA is right to prioritize equity throughout the region with the limited funds it has to distribute, and it’s important that critical coronavirus assistance doesn’t end up only funding more express trains from Barrington or some other service enhancement that doesn’t target the neediest travelers in the region. However, there is likely a compromise solution where the RTA can leverage its power of the purse, and I encourage them to do so: if Metra can demonstrate how these additional coronavirus assistance funds can be used to specifically target service enhancements to better serve these Critical Need Areas, the RTA should be willing to swing the needle further into Metra’s direction.

The RTA is accepting public comments on their distribution plans through this Friday, March 5. Members of the public who wish to comment can submit comments via email to communications@rtachicago.org.