Metra's threat of service cuts fails to grab state's attention
Two separate but related transportation news stories surfaced back-to-back last week.
On Tuesday, Metra released the proposed 2019 budget with no fare increases but dire warnings of service cuts that could wipe out entire train lines unless a funding fairy godmother pops up.
On Wednesday, longtime Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross announced his retirement, leaving the suburban bus company on firm ground after some challenging years and hopeful of introducing express buses onto the Tri-State Tollway.
What does it all mean for suburban commuters who just want a comfortable and cost-effective ride?
First, Metra. The commuter railroad's more-money-or-fewer-trains ultimatum in September aimed at grabbing the attention of state lawmakers has not done so. Officials indicated they'll be holding their noses and voting on an $822 million operating budget and $186 million capital budget in November, although it doesn't even begin to cover replacement of 41-year-old locomotives and 100-year old bridges.
Without state aid, "Metra cannot continue to operate the system as it now exists," said Executive Director Jim Derwinski. That could leave the railroad's weakest performing train lines -- such as the SouthWest Service or North Central Service -- at risk.
"We have trees that are not necessarily bearing fruit and may need to be pruned to save the forest," Director John Zediker of Naperville said. "The solution's not coming from the federal or state government."
You'd think the prospect of thousands at risk of having their ride to work pruned would merit concern but scandals trumped transit in all three gubernatorial debates between GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat challenger J.B. Pritzker.
As for top lawmakers -- "I don't know what to tell you ... there's no money," is how Metra Director Tim Baldermann of New Lenox described the reaction from General Assembly leaders.
Regrets but no action leaves suburban legislators -- whose voters depend on Metra -- in a pickle.
"Cutting service is not acceptable and Illinois taxpayers and fare-payers deserve better," Republican state Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville said.
"It's not fair to punish (riders) by raising their fares or by eliminating the services they rely on," Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy said.
Like Metra, Pace has struggled with similar financial crises over the years as it transports riders around the suburbs. In this year's proposed 2019 budget, 14 low-ridership routes are on the chopping block.
Ross has weathered boardrooms packed with furious riders and ongoing criticism over empty buses in his 20-year tenure.
But last week, as Ross announced his last day would be Nov. 30, Pace leaders called the agency's finances "strong and stable." No fare increases are anticipated and Pace will launch a new arterial bus service on Milwaukee Avenue next year.
In 1998, when he was driving from Phoenix to Chicago to begin his Pace career, Ross was struck by the wide interior shoulder on Interstate 55 and wondered, "Why aren't we using that?"
Thirteen years later, Ross unwrapped the Bus on Shoulder program on I-55 that allows Pace drivers to hop on shoulder lanes during rush hour when speeds drop to 35 mph. Ridership surged by 600 percent and "now my problem is not enough buses," he said.
Ross called expanding BOS to the Jane Addams Tollway not just another significant achievement but "fun." And he's optimistic the program will move to the Tri-State Tollway.
A more humbling experience was taking over paratransit service for disabled Chicago riders from the CTA in the mid-2000s.
A new scheduling system and other changes in 2008 resulted in delays and incensed riders who packed the Pace boardroom regularly to vent.
"You couldn't argue with them -- because they were right," the 68-year-old civil engineer recalled. "It kept me awake at night trying to figure out how to solve it."
Easier problems and fixes involved downsizing buses to match ridership and converting some of the fleet from diesel to greener compressed natural gas.
Eventually, Pace could "make the leap to electric buses," Ross hoped. "Transit plays a role in saving the earth."
Deputy Executive Director Rocky Donahue will serve as chief in the interim; the agency has not yet revealed plans to find a successor.
Got an opinion on Metra or Pace? Drop an email to email@example.com.
You should know
To save money, Pace is proposing ending or revising routes in 2019 that include: Route 326 West Irving Park; Route 532 Illinois Avenue; Route 590 Round Lake Area Call-N-Ride; Route 681 Lincoln Park-Naperville Metra; Route 809 Richmond-Fox Lake Metra Station; Route 824 East Bolingbrook-Lisle; Saturday service on Route 209 Busse Highway; Saturday service on Route 540 Farnsworth Avenue; and Saturday service on Route 546 Orange-Walnut.
Where to attend Metra, Pace hearings
Want to weigh in on Metra? Here's where to attend a budget hearing (all are from 4 to 7 p.m.): Nov. 1 at Arlington Heights village hall, 33 S. Arlington Heights Road; Crystal Lake city hall, 100 W. Woodstock St.; Clarendon Hills village hall, 1 N. Prospect Ave.; and Will County offices, 302 N. Chicago St., Joliet. Nov. 5 at Mundelein village hall, 300 Plaza Circle; Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva; Metra headquarters, 547 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago.
Pace will hold a series of budget hearings this month including: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Waukegan Public Library, 128 N. County St.; 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Joliet Public Library, 150 N. Ottawa St.; 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 23 at Pace headquarters, 550 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights; 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Crystal Lake city hall, 100 W. Woodstock St.; 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 29 at Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva; and 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 30 at DuPage County Government Center, 421 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton.