COVID-19 relief will give $1.5B to transit. How much will go to Metra, Pace, CTA?

After months of fiscal anxiety, Metra, Pace and the CTA have stepped away from the financial cliff with an estimated $1.5 billion COVID-19 relief federal bailout coming soon.

The rescue comes courtesy of the $1.9 trillion American Recovery Act, the nation's third pandemic relief bill signed into law March 11.

Without that help, Chicago area transit "would be on its knees," is how Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski characterized the situation. Ridership plummeted on all three systems when COVID-19 spiraled last spring and hasn't recovered - the RTA's transit dashboard shows an overall reduction of 73% as of March 19.

Now that the prospect of penury is gone, the burning question is how much of the jackpot will each agency receive? An equally important issue: Now that the pandemic has changed everything about commuting, what's the plan to get riders back in seats?

"It is essential that the federal funding doesn't encourage agencies to merely postpone the hard decisions needed to revamp transit service as the pandemic subsides," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

Here are five things to consider.

One. How much?

Back in 2008, a formula was established to divide federal funds for public transit in the Chicago region that gives 58% to the Chicago Transit Authority, 35% to Metra and 8% to Pace.

Assuming the allocation is about $1.5 billion, the resulting division could distribute about $870 million to the CTA, $525 million to Metra and $120 million to Pace. (Some of those funds will likely be designated to paratransit and the RTA.)

Two. It doesn't always happen that way.

The RTA changed the status quo this spring, giving the CTA a bigger share of the pie from Congress' second pandemic rescue plan that set aside $486 million for regional transit.

RTA planners used data based on highly used transit corridors serving essential pandemic workers in dense areas to determine where the critical needs were.

That plan shifted 77.5% to the CTA, 17.9% to Metra and 4.6% to Pace. RTA leaders called it a one-time contingency amid objections from Metra and Pace.

This time, "we are expecting a distribution similar to the traditional formula for the third round of relief," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.

Stay tuned.

Three. Jobs are moving. Is transit keeping up?

At an Active Transportation Alliance forum Wednesday on the future of suburban transit, Chicagoan Alfred White described a grueling six-hour round trip commute to his job at a Bolingbrook warehouse. "It makes no sense," he said.

Warehouse employment is a fast-growing segment of the pandemic economy, but it's mainly occurring in suburban areas without access to transit, experts said.

"If there's a street, I can put a bus on it," Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue said. But to expand bus service, Pace would need more funding, he said.

"Access to suburban jobs isn't there because we're spending 90 cents of every dollar we invest in public transit to serve the central business district of the city of Chicago," Donahue said.

Four. Will a fare revamp bring back riders?

Metra thinks so. "This new (federal) money coming in is really going to allow us to dive deep into new fare products," Derwinski said at the transportation alliance session. A new $10 all-day pass has been very popular, he said. "It gives people coming back to the workplace a better flexibility."

Coming up, Metra may "come out of this with some pilot fare programs, maybe different on each different line," he said.

Five. Think outside the box(car).

This summer, the RTA will kick off a redo of its five-year strategic plan. It's crucial "to re-imagine how our transit system can emerge from this crisis stronger," Executive Director Leanne Redden said Wednesday. Funding is expected to be part of that conversation.

Your voice

Last week's column on I-490, the new toll road on O'Hare International Airport's west side, left out an important point, cyclist Terry Witt of Barlett wrote. "How will bicycling be accommodated?" he asked. "We have thousands of (workers) living within 10 miles of O'Hare and thousands of one-day travelers, too."

Gridlock alert

Is it really roadwork season again? Yes, for outbound Kennedy Expressway drivers starting Monday. IDOT crews are resurfacing a section between the Edens Expressway and Harlem Avenue. Expect overnight lane closures starting at 9 p.m. now through late October.

Driver's license reprieve

Drivers with expired licenses and state ID cards have until Aug. 1 to renew after Secretary of State Jesse White extended a June 1 deadline. The reprieve also applies to people with licenses expiring in the next four months. White issued the extension amid the COVID-19 pandemic that closed driver's services offices and asked people to go online first at before conducting transactions in person. The agency has seen online customer business soar by 75% in the last nine months.

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  Metra passengers wait to board an inbound train Friday in Elgin. An estimated $1.5 billion allocation from the American Recovery Act will keep Metra, Pace and the CTA solvent, but how do they get people back on buses and trains? Brian Hill/
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