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Illinois Lawmakers Seek ‘Bold’ Plan for Chicago Area Transit

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is preparing a series of recommendations to address the transit fiscal cliff and governance challenges. State lawmakers told them to "be bold."

Chicago's transit systems face significant revenue and ridership challenges. "I feel like transit is constantly in crisis,” says Illinois state Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado. (RTA)
In Brief:
  • CMAP is conducting a year-long research and engagement process for a report to the state Legislature on solutions to governance, funding and operations challenges in Chicago transit.

  • State lawmakers say the acute post-pandemic funding crisis is an occasion to take a broad look at regional transit issues.

  • Recommendations may include changes to transit funding formulas and requirements for transit systems to make up at least half of their budgets from fares.

  • In Chicago, the number is $730 million.

    That’s the size of the fiscal cliff the region’s transit systems are facing when federal relief money is spent in 2026, assuming they continue running the same levels of service and no new funding sources are identified.

    It’s an impossibly large deficit for any institution — around 20 percent of the systems’ combined budgets — and it’s causing a scramble for solutions to fend off catastrophe for one of the oldest and most expansive metropolitan transit systems in the country. But the problems didn’t start with the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “I will tell you, I feel like transit is constantly in crisis,” says Illinois state Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado, a Democrat based in Chicago who spent the early part of her career working in government affairs for the Chicago Transit Authority.

    Last year, Delgado co-sponsored a law in the state Legislature calling on the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to prepare a set of recommendations for addressing the problems that ail the region’s transit systems. This includes looking not just at the pandemic-fueled fiscal crisis but funding and governance challenges that stretch back decades.

    The law asks for CMAP, the region’s metropolitan planning organization, to deliver recommendations to the Legislature at the beginning of next year, with the goal of ensuring “the long-term financial viability of a comprehensive and coordinated regional public transportation system that moves people safely, securely, cleanly, and efficiently and supports and fosters efficient land use.”

    The agency is now convening meetings with regional business, civic and advocacy groups as part of its state-mandated Plan of Action for Regional Transit (PART). Delgado believes the time is ripe to make long-needed improvements, and instructed the planners to “be bold.”

    “This is the moment where we can really seriously talk about changing transit and changing the way it’s structured, and really look at the big picture,” Delgado says.

    Governance and Funding Challenges 

    The Chicago area has a complex transit network, with three different transit providers serving the region:
    • CTA, which runs city buses and trains, including the L
    • Metra, which runs commuter rail between the city and its suburbs
    • PACE, which runs suburban buses
    All three are overseen by the Regional Transit Authority. But integrating the systems has proven to be a challenge, as has getting all the city, county and local authorities in the area to back a regional plan for transit.

    In a series of draft “governance problem statements,” CMAP notes a lack of coordination between local authorities and transit systems, and says “decisions are made in a decentralized fashion, lacking in a common vision and plan for execution.” Other problems include funding formulas that reinforce decision-making “silos” and don’t allow the systems to respond quickly to changing travel patterns.

    “Transit works best when it’s on a regional scale. People cross borders all the time,” says Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit group that is helping CMAP research potential recommendations to the Legislature. “Coordinating all of that is a challenge for any transit agency, especially in a place with a legacy system like Chicago.”

    The three transit providers are also required by law to recover at least 50 percent of their operating budgets from fares, a ratio that’s “very high by peer standards,” says Daniel Comeaux, a senior policy analyst at CMAP. That requirement has been waived during the pandemic, and the systems currently aren’t meeting it, Comeaux says. Items like amending or repealing the farebox recovery ratio requirement could be among the recommendations in the Plan of Action.
    The three transit providers are required by law to recover at least 50 percent of their operating budgets from fares, a ratio that’s very high by peer standards. That mandate has put a strain on RTA's revenue picture and it's one of the reasons why the state is recommending changes to how the systems are run. (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning)

    How CMAP is Approaching the Plan

    Aside from governance challenges, Chicago’s transit systems also suffer from more concrete service challenges. While car travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels, transit ridership is still down. CTA and PACE buses have been getting slower and less reliable for years. The systems have fewer miles of dedicated bus lanes than some other big cities. Fares aren’t integrated across the three systems, which compete for riders in some areas where services overlap.

    The PART process is being led by a steering committee made of business, civic, environmental, labor and transportation groups. CMAP has split the work into three parts, focused on “The system we want,” “how to pay for it,” and “how to implement it.” Potential improvements to the system include things like more dedicated busways, accessibility upgrades, service changes, bus electrification, integrating fares and transfers, and land-use policies that support transit ridership.

    Funding recommendations could include requests for greater state or federal subsidies, changes to the sales tax that supports transit, potential fare increases and other changes. The plan may also recommend changes to funding formulas and the structures of boards that govern various transit systems.

    CMAP is planning a series of public meetings through September of this year, and assessing its policy recommendations through the lenses of climate change, racial equity and economic development. While the issues under consideration range from technical to arcane, Delgado believes the effort will result in concrete improvements.

    “I do think this is a transformational project,” Delgado says. “I think this is something that is really going to affect people's everyday experiences.”

    CMAP’s recommendations are due to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2024, and Delgado and other leaders say state legislators are primed to make new investments in the Chicago area’s transit systems. Other city transit systems in the U.S. — all in various stages of crisis — will be watching to see how political leaders respond to the recommendations, says Puentes.

    “There is an opportunity now to do something important that does have lasting effects,” he says. “Everybody’s looking at each other. Transit is a very close community.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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