Metra leaders upset by plan to give CTA a bigger share of COVID-19 relief

A new Regional Transportation Authority formula to distribute federal COVID-19 relief funds raised Metra directors' hackles Wednesday after learning the plan will give a chunk of the rail agency's traditional share to the Chicago Transit Authority.

About $486 million became available for Metra, Pace and the CTA after Congress approved the Coronavirus Response and Relief Act in December. RTA planners said they recalibrated allocations to benefit areas where the needs are most critical.

The CTA would receive $361 million, or 77.5%, of the $486 million, Metra will get $83 million, or 17.9%, and $22 million, or 4.6%, will be distributed to Pace.

The CARES Act, the first pandemic aid bill, gave regional transit $1.43 billion that was split up following an established formula of 58% to the CTA, 34% to Metra and 8% to Pace, netting the CTA $817.5 million, Metra $479.2 million and Pace $112.8 million, with the remainder going to the RTA.

"I do not feel this is RTA's finest hour," Metra Director Norm Carlson of Lake Forest said during an online meeting. "The assumptions create a bias against the suburbs as a whole. You need to dig deeper."

The RTA's proposal still needs to be approved by the agency's board.

RTA planners considered the ridership plunge on all three systems after COVID-19 cases surged in spring 2020, and they looked at "who is most likely to need transit in general, and who is most likely to work in industries that will require commuting," in 2021.

Factors included what routes sustained relatively high ridership during the pandemic and served essential workers, as well the needs of low-income, elderly and minority passengers who might not have a car.

Metra ridership slumped by 75% overall in 2020, and although expenses were $110 million under budget, revenues dropped by about $263 million. CARES Act revenues will cover the gap, officials said Wednesday, but continued funding problems are anticipated for 2021.

Metra officials said the RTA's allocation had ignored the needs of minority riders and workers in the suburbs.

"It seems like Metra is always on the short end of the stick and we're being penalized for controlling costs," former Metra executive director and board Director Don Orseno said.

RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden told directors she understood their concerns. The formula "is not precedent-setting," she said. "This is an allocation of one slice of money at one point in time. The comments I hear are consistent with what we are thinking about in terms of future allocations of future dollars and the long-term recovery of all three agencies going forward."

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said federal COVID-19 aid "was specifically intended to allow transit agencies to maintain service for essential workers during a time of financial hardship. CTA has provided nearly 80% of regional ridership during the pandemic, so the proposed allocation is in line with the service provided."

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