Pace navigating pandemic and 'hardest' budget ever
Pace ridership is down by 50%, the 2021 budget anticipates a $53.6 million shortfall and 73 bus routes are temporarily canceled.
It could be worse, Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue said.
Like Metra and the CTA, the suburban bus service was ambushed by the COVID-19 virus this spring.
"At the height of the pandemic, ridership was down 70%," Donahue said. "Over the summer, we clawed it back to 50% and now it's plateaued."
Federal aid from the CARES Act will plug Pace's $53.6 million budget hole in 2021, but projections show a $60 million deficit in 2022 if farebox and sales tax revenues don't revive.
What's also hurting is parking 73 bus routes in 2021 until the economy improves and the pandemic's grip loosens. The agency first halted the routes in March. Many suspended routes had connected to Metra trains currently canceled or schools with remote learning. They include: Route 183 Southwest Naperville Evening Service; Route 608 Roselle/Schaumburg; and Route 631 Shuttle Bug 1 between the Deerfield Metra station and Lake-Cook Road workplaces.
Incidentally, with Metra ridership tanking to 25,710 daily as white-collar workers telecommute, Pace has eclipsed the railroad for the first time ever, boarding about 55,000 passengers a day.
"Those who rely on Pace don't have other options," Donahue said. "It's a truly essential service for many of our riders -- workers at essential jobs like UPS or seniors trying to get their prescriptions filled."
One trend transit planners want to fathom is when major employers will start transitioning employees to attend in-person. Some business leaders have indicated that won't happen until the spring but it's a moving target.
"In my 38 years, this is the hardest year to develop a budget," Donahue said, even when compared to 2007 and 2008 when "doomsday" shortfalls were projected.
Pace's proposed suburban bus budget is $239 million and virtual hearings are scheduled Monday through Friday this week. For information, go to pacebus.com.
No fare increases are anticipated in 2021 but it's possible in 2022, with a $60 million deficit projected unless Congress passes another COVID-19 stimulus package.
However, "raising fares won't cover $60 million," Donahue said.
The agency's paratransit service for disabled riders is stable with a dedicated stream of state revenues. And, the capital budget is benefiting from a state capital plan buoyed by a gas tax increase.
One more thing
Next year, a study of an express bus service on the Central Tri-State Tollway (I-294) will be completed, allowing Pace to coordinate detailed plans with the Illinois tollway, which is widening the corridor.
Ultimately, the project will allow Pace buses to hop on Flex Lanes, located on the shoulder lanes, in rush-hour traffic jams. Pace intends to build new bus stations on the corridor with the ultimate goal of providing south suburban workers with a fast trip to job centers in DuPage and Cook counties.
Gib VanDine of West Chicago has the following suggestions to collect Metra fares and reduce contact between riders and conductors during the pandemic: "Charge one price for use of the train, independent of distance traveled," he wrote. "Make ATMs that issue tickets instead of cash." And allow riders to enter the track area "via a turnstile that scans, verifies and gobbles up your ticket."
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Drivers cruising on Butterfield Road under the Tri-State Tollway in Berkley and Hillside can expect delays from lane closures in both directions starting this week. The change is intended to protect workers and drivers as the tollway starts reconstructing the interchange between I-290/I-88 and I-294. The project continues through 2022.
All-Day pass prolonged
Metra has extended its All-Day unlimited rides pass through Dec. 31 instead of ending it in October. The pass debuted in June to serve commuters with changing schedules due to COVID-19 and is used by one-third of riders. The cost is $10.