Don't expect public transit to bounce back to 'normal' when COVID-19 retreats
Currently, Metra is at 3% of its ridership, the CTA is at 20% and Pace is at 33% thanks to COVID-19. Revenues are in a free-fall.
Yet, Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski is confident that local public transit isn't going away.
“Chicago's too big, there's too much business here, there's too many people that need to access downtown,” he explained.
But don't expect the same-old system when the world exhales. Commuter service “may not be five days a week like it used to be,” Derwinski said.
“Until there's a vaccine, I think people will try to avoid crowds ... that's obviously making us look at transit a bit differently,” Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue said.
Historically, transit agencies have measured success as full buses and trains.
“Now,” Donahue said, “we're thinking in terms of social distancing success.”
Reductions in Pace routes and Metra schedules will continue after May 29, the day Illinois is expected to ease stay-at-home restrictions. Masks and social distancing of 6 feet are required on all three transit systems.
As commuters return, Metra will provide “shadow trains” to accommodate passengers if rush-hour trains are getting full.
Currently, Metra is running trains with five to six cars; that will increase to nine and 10 cars based on demand.
Right now, there are no plans to block seats to ensure roominess, but “if we need to, we will,” Derwinski said.
Pace suspended about 70 routes after schools, malls and businesses closed down in March, and those will remain out of service for now.
The bus agency will continue boarding passengers at the rear and taping off seats to ensure proper social distancing.
When the state eventually reopens, there's anticipation among urban planners that a number of Chicagoans might move to the suburbs, and some people will continue to work from home.
CTA leaders said future plans will be influenced by state stay-at-home orders, health regulations and whether teleworkers return to their offices.
“Whatever that scenario looks like, it is our responsibility to meet the 'new normal' with innovation (and) agile service delivery,” according to the CTA.
Metra is checking for trends with real estate companies that might indicate an exodus from the city.
Derwinski's also consulting with business leaders about worker status.
So far, it's a “mixed bag,” he said. Some employers “are telling us 'my people will work from home until September,' others are 'my people are working from home until there's a vaccine.'”
Despite curtailing Pace buses heading to schools and malls, “some of our routes still carry thousands,” Donahue said.
Many riders are essential workers heading to hospitals or delivery companies like the UPS facility in Hodgkins.
The CTA estimates it's losing $1 million a day, Metra estimates a shortfall of over $330 million this year, and Pace puts its losses at $80 million in 2020.
All in all, more than $1 billion will vaporize in 2020, the Regional Transportation Authority estimates.
Federal aid will help, but won't cover the entire shortfall.
Asked about fare hikes, given the high unemployment rate, “I certainly don't see a lot of support for that right now,” Derwinski said.
Does that mean low-ridership routes such as the North Central Service could be endangered?
Those are “important and hard decisions the board is going to have to contemplate,” Derwinski said.
For Pace to balance its budget, “everything is an option,” Donahue said.
The agency also will take a hard look at suspended bus routes and how or if certain ones can be resumed.
Another focus is ensuring railcars and buses are as germ-free as possible.
“People need to feel safe and cars need to be clean,” Derwinski said.
DePaul University transit expert Joseph Schwieterman noted “Chicago's transit system has a big advantage over many other cities — a big and vibrant downtown that is easily accessed on buses and trains. Expect the recovery here to be stronger than in most other cities.”