CHICAGO – Officials with the state’s largest transit agencies met with lawmakers on Tuesday to sound the alarm for what Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Leanne Redden called a “looming operational crisis.”
“By 2026, the region will face an annual budget deficit of nearly $730 million per year,” Redden told lawmakers. “That’s nearly 20 percent of our operating revenue.”
The Regional Transportation Authority, or RTA, is the oversight organization for the Chicago Transit Authority, the Metra commuter rail system and the Pace suburban bus system.
The projected budget shortfall comes primarily from changes in the way people use public transit since the pandemic began. The number of passenger trips on the three Chicagoland transit systems was down last year to 50.5 percent of what it was in 2019, according to data from RTA.
State law requires that approximately half of the RTA’s revenues come from rider fares, but in recent years the agency has gotten statutory exemptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Redden told lawmakers that since 2020, fares have only made up “about 20 percent” of the needed revenue to operate the system.
“The RTA eventually will need a change in state law that stops the requirement that 50 percent of revenues come from fares,” RTA Board Chair Kirk Dillard said. “It’s an unsustainable funding model post-COVID.”
In 2022, the agency’s budget included $443 million from the state’s Public Transportation Fund along with $130 million from the state to service the RTA’s debts and $8.4 million to fund paratransit services. Combined, this accounts for roughly 17 percent of the system’s $3.4 billion budget. It also receives public funding from the federal government, through local sales taxes and a real estate transfer tax.
Last month, RTA’s board approved a strategic plan that includes seeking increased funding overall to the system and developing a new model that is less reliant on fares.
Senate Transportation Committee Chair Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, indicated that the committee will likely support helping the beleaguered transit agencies, although he suggested lawmakers will use this as an opportunity to exert some oversight on the transit boards.
“We are more than willing to engage in a process that leads the state to assisting the transit agency,” Villivalam said. “That said there are certain reforms and issues, like safety and accessibility, that need to be addressed.”
Some members of the committee laid out the issues they hope to see addressed by the agencies.
“I have a lot of bones to pick with a lot of you,” Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, told representatives of the RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace.
Villanueva cited both personal experience and concerns voiced by constituents as evidence of CTA failing to offer adequate service to underserved and low-income communities.
“These are the same communities, and again pardon my French, that saved (you) during the pandemic because they were the ones who were using public transit,” Villanueva said.
Beyond the long-term inequities in access, the CTA has also faced criticism from lawmakers and advocates about increased wait times for services and “ghost busses,” a term to describe when a bus is scheduled to come but never does.
Nora Leerhsen, the chief of staff for CTA’s president, cited an “unprecedented” workforce shortage when asked about these issues at the hearing.
Commuters Take Action, a campaign calling for increased transparency from the CTA, said the agency continues to provide unreliable information about train and bus arrivals and inadequate updates on schedule changes.
“We are sympathetic to CTA’s struggles to find bus and train operators, but the agency needs to inform their riders better about how much their essential transportation has been affected,” Morgan Madderom, an organizer with Commuters Take Action, said in a statement about the hearing.
Transit planners in the region say it will take time and collaboration to find answers to the problems facing transit in Illinois.
“There’s no silver bullet funding source for us to solve this problem,” said Erin Aleman, the executive director for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “It is going to take a number of different strategies.”
Although lawmakers only discussed Chicagoland transit on Tuesday, the problems caused by the pandemic and the longer-term changes to how people travel have interrupted transit services in the rest of Illinois as well. Transit systems in Bloomington-Normal, Peoria, Rockford, Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Kankakee and DeKalb have all faced decreased ridership since the pandemic began.
As of December, the combined number of trips being taken on these systems is down to 69 percent of what it was at the same time in 2019, according to data from the Federal Transit Administration.