'Where we're faster than cars, people will come': New Pace CEO aims for express buses on Tri-State

  • Pace plans to establish express bus routes on the Tri-State Tollway similar to this one at I-90 and Barrington Road in Hoffman Estates.

    Pace plans to establish express bus routes on the Tri-State Tollway similar to this one at I-90 and Barrington Road in Hoffman Estates. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood dates back to 1912.

    Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood dates back to 1912. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Rajinder Singh Mago of Wayne waves an American flag during a parade in Chicago before the opening ceremony for the Punjabi Sport Festival in 2008.

    Rajinder Singh Mago of Wayne waves an American flag during a parade in Chicago before the opening ceremony for the Punjabi Sport Festival in 2008. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood dates back to 1912. Students in classrooms across Illinois will be required to learn about Asian American history beginning next school year as part of first-of-its-kind legislation approved by state lawmakers last year.

    Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood dates back to 1912. Students in classrooms across Illinois will be required to learn about Asian American history beginning next school year as part of first-of-its-kind legislation approved by state lawmakers last year. Daily Herald File Photo

  • courtesy of Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce Waves of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian immigrants brought the development of iconic business districts, like Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood.

    courtesy of Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce Waves of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian immigrants brought the development of iconic business districts, like Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood.

  • U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg is the first Asian American congressman from Illinois.

    U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg is the first Asian American congressman from Illinois. Associated Press

  • Grace Pai

    Grace Pai

  • New Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger was appointed to her position in March. She started work at the agency in the 1980s.

    New Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger was appointed to her position in March. She started work at the agency in the 1980s. Courtesy of Pace

  • Chicago workers renumber a gate at O'Hare's Terminal 5, which is getting 10 new gates.

    Chicago workers renumber a gate at O'Hare's Terminal 5, which is getting 10 new gates. Courtesy Chicago Department of Aviation

  • Pace is planning to add express bus routes and stations along the Tri-State Tollway.

    Pace is planning to add express bus routes and stations along the Tri-State Tollway. Courtesy of Pace

 
 
Updated 4/13/2022 11:39 AM

With Metra service centered primarily on getting to Chicago and back, cars are a necessity for many suburb-to-suburb commutes unless you relish a three-hour bus trip.

That's why Pace's evolving plan to dispatch express buses onto the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) between the North and South suburbs could be a game-changer for transit riders.

 

Buses would circulate on I-294 between Harvey in the South suburbs to bus hubs in Rosemont and Schaumburg, according to a preliminary study. Pace would build stations along the route -- first at the Cermak Toll Plaza, then near the Oak Brook Mall and at the former O'Hare Oasis site. Later, a station is planned for Chicago Ridge.

To escape rush hour delays, bus drivers can hop on designated "Flex Lanes" to ensure on-time arrivals.

"Why 294?" Pace Executive Director Melinda J. Metzger asked. "It's one of our busiest highways ... so if we can get a Flex route where we're faster than cars, people will come. It's a field of dreams here."

Pace piloted express buses on I-55's shoulder lanes and later expanded onto the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90). The Illinois tollway built the first Flex Lanes for buses while reconstructing I-90, and both agencies are partnering on the Tri-State, which is being widened and rebuilt now.

"When we are faster, people will park in our park-and-ride lots and hop on the bus and go to where they need to go," Metzger said.

Moreover, some "South suburbs have an economically disadvantaged population. This will bring job opportunities from the south Cook area to O'Hare, to Schaumburg, to Rosemont, where there are a lot of jobs and they need people to come up there and work."

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The three new stations could cost up to $110 million, with an initial allocation of $34 million in state funding expected to offset expenses.

The project completion date is 2027, but buses could roll earlier depending on synergies with tollway construction.

Metzger was appointed as Pace's new chief in March and is the first woman to hold that position. But her tenure stretches back to Pace's inception in 1984, with a brief stint at the Regional Transportation Authority.

One of Metzger's earliest jobs was operating one of Pace's bus garages, and she progressed to general manager and chief operating officer.

"I'm thrilled to have this job," said Metzger, who lives in Chicago and grew up in Germany while her father served in the U.S. Army.

"Operations is in my blood now," she explained. "The first goal in my era here is to get zero emissions up and rolling."

Pace intends to convert to an all-electric fleet by 2040. But "the problem for us is every bus company in the United States is looking to buy electric, and there's not enough bus and battery manufacturers," Metzger said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When a contract with the state of Georgia opened up, Pace piggybacked on that in March, ordering 20 electric buses. "They should start to be delivered in March of next year," Metzger said.

One challenge facing the agency is the spike in diesel prices, up from $3.20 a gallon last year to nearly $5.

"We anticipate our diesel budget will be over by about $3 million by the end of the year," Metzger said, adding Pace already is using compressed natural gas on some vehicles that will ease the hit.

"Going forward, we will not order another diesel bus in our capital budget."

Metzger, who has master's degrees in public administration, is being paid $295,000 annually.

In an industry where male executives dominate, the Chicago region is experiencing a sea change with five female leaders at transportation agencies: Metzger, Metra Chairwoman Romayne Brown, RTA chief Leanne Redden, tollway Chairwoman Dorothy Lebreu and interim tollway CEO Lanyea Griffin.

"You have a lot of women working in the industry in lower ranks who've worked their way up," Metzger said. "It's good to see and it levels the playing field all the way around."

Gridlock alert

Sorry, Barrington. Repairs to the CN railway crossing at Route 59 mean a full closure at that location starting April 23. Detours will be posted and work should wrap up by evening on April 29.

One more thing

In this May 1943 file photo, Aiko Sumoge, an assistant teacher, leads a kindergarten class singing an English folk song at the internment relocation center for Japanese Americans in Tule Lake, California, during World War II. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were sent to desolate camps along the West Coast because the government believed they might plot against the U.S.
In this May 1943 file photo, Aiko Sumoge, an assistant teacher, leads a kindergarten class singing an English folk song at the internment relocation center for Japanese Americans in Tule Lake, California, during World War II. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were sent to desolate camps along the West Coast because the government believed they might plot against the U.S. - Associated Press

Chicago Department of Aviation crews installed five new signs on the "M" gates at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 5 last week. The redo is part of a $1 billion expansion at the terminal, with 10 new gates, which means renumbering existing ones. The project will wrap up later this year.

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