When the COVID-19 pandemic kept most workers at home except for essential employees in jobs such as health care, Cook County agencies launched an effort to make transportation more affordable pools for those living in South Chicago and in the South and Southwest. suburb.
The South Cook Fair Transit pilot scheme, in preparation before the pandemic prompted stay-at-home orders in March 2020, began in January 2021, just weeks after the rollout of vaccines to protect against the virus. It cut fares on two Metra commuter rail lines and increased travel frequency on a heavily used Pace bus line in the southern suburbs.
“It probably wasn’t the best time, but in many ways it was the best time because that’s when people were hurting the most,” said Jim Derwinski, chief executive of Metra. , about launching the program.
During the first few months of the pandemic, Metra saw ridership numbers plummet on all of its lines, including the Metra Electric, which runs through the South Side and southern suburbs of Chicago, and the Rock Island line, which serves areas on the southwest side and southwest suburbs.
The Fair Transit program cut those Metra fares in half. It also increased the frequency of Pace buses on the 352-Halsted commuter system bus route that connects the CTA 95th/Dan Ryan station to the Pace Terminal Chicago Heights. This route is the busiest of all bus routes in the suburban system, officials said.
On the Electric and Rock Island Metra lines, fares in January 2021 have been reduced to the same rate normally charged to seniors and persons with disabilities. Cook County officials have agreed to pay Metra a maximum of $30 million over the life of the pilot program to cover lost revenue.
Derwinski noted that passengers relying on Metra faced significantly reduced service across the board as trains and once-crowded commuter parking lots emptied out when ridership plunged during the pandemic.
In a report evaluating the first year of the pilot program, Cook County noted that ridership on the Electric and Rock Island lines rebounded faster than ridership on other Metra lines as pandemic restrictions began to ease. soften in 2021.
Officials noted that residents of the South Side and southern suburbs who were considered essential workers during the pandemic, such as those working in health care, had no choice but to show up for work. , and the rate reductions came at an opportune time.
In July 2021, Metra increased service on the Electric and Rock Island lines to “just below pre-pandemic levels,” the first such service increases in the commuter line system since the fall of the number of riders, Derwinski said.
The rebound was proof that the pilot program was having an effect, he said.
Ridership on the power line, for example, has seen a steady decline in annual ridership dating back many years, according to Metra data.
In 2019, before the pandemic, combined ridership on the Electric and Rock Island lines accounted for about 20% of systemwide passengers on Metra, according to the pilot program’s first year report.
Ridership on these two lines, however, increased in April 2020 to 30% of Metra’s overall ridership before stabilizing at 25% by the end of 2020, according to the pilot program report. Considering, however, that in April 2020, Metra had seen its system traffic drop by 97%, this jump was minimal.
After the launch of the pilot program, ridership on the Electric and Rock Island lines averaged a recovery rate 32% faster than the Metra system as a whole, according to the report. That helped convince Metra to initially increase service levels on those lines, Derwinski said.
Still, the report on the pilot program noted that while the fare reductions were “associated with faster ridership restoration” on these two lines, “due to the impact of the pandemic on ridership, it It is not possible to compare pilot era ridership with historical ridership. to identify a net change at this time.
In early 2021, ridership on the Electric and Rock Island lines increased from 140,000 monthly passengers to 430,000 fare-paying passengers once fare reductions were implemented, said Department of Transportation and Highways Superintendent Jennifer Killen. of Cook County.
She said the pilot’s focus on southern Cook County was intentional, as that area is “one of the most transit-dependent parts of our county and is also traditionally one of the more underserved”.
Of about 780,000 households in areas served by the Electric and Rock Island lines, 106,000 lack access to a personal vehicle while 130,000 spend between 30% and 50% of their income on transportation, depending on the county. Another 47,000 people spend more than 50% of their annual income on transportation.
Cook County Council chairman Toni Preckwinkle said early results prove the pilot program is a success.
“We are taking steps to ensure residents of the South Cook area have the same access to affordable, fast and reliable transportation as the rest of Cook County,” she said.
For Pace Route 352, however, research into the impact of the pilot program so far shows negligible results.
Prior to the pilot program, this route, despite being the busiest in the Pace system, accounted for 6% of total ridership among all Pace routes, and this briefly increased to 9% while dropping to 5% after May 2021, after the end of the pilot program. introduced, according to the study.
He notes that despite an increase in the frequency of buses crossing the road, ridership has slowly decreased.
The pilot program also aimed to ease the burden of household spending on transport costs, but the results at this stage are unclear.
Rate reductions on the Metra Electric line, for example, were expected to save some commuters up to $900 a year on travel costs.
The study noted that in the areas served by the pilot program, household spending on things such as food and entertainment increased, but the study could not explain precisely to what extent this increase in spending came from lower transportation costs or as a result of federal stimulus payments that benefited households during the pandemic.
Metra is moving forward with work at two stations along the Electric and Rock Island lines, including a multimillion-dollar redesign of the 147th Street/Sibley Boulevard station on the Electric line in Harvey which has seen no upgrade for three decades.
This project, which began this month, will close this station for at least a year, although commuters have other options in the surrounding area, including the Metra stop in Harvey at Park Avenue and 154th Street.
Separately, Metra is working on renovations at Blue Island at a stop on the Rock Island line at 2300 W. Grove St.
Preckwinkle said Thursday that the Harvey station is among the transit pilot program stops and that, working with Metra, the collaboration aims to “make the service more available, accessible and affordable for Southland residents.”
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Going forward, a key goal is to adopt a unified transit fare system that encompasses Metra, Pace and the CTA, according to the report.
“Mass transit in the region should operate as one system,” Preckwinkle said.
Pace and CTA use the Ventra payment system, unlike Metra, and have agreements to allow transfers between Pace and CTA for less than the cost of a full fare, the transit study notes.
However, Pace and CTA passengers transferring to Metra must purchase another full-fare regular fare rather than the discounted transfer, according to the study.
Officials at the press conference said this was a hurdle, although not insurmountable, to making travel between the three systems smooth and less expensive.
“We have to find a way to solve the fare integration problem,” Metra’s Derwinski said.