Transit agencies approve universal one-day pass

By Igor Studenkov For Chronicle Media

A Pace Route 330 bus arrives at the O’Hare Airport Multi-Modal Facility next to the Metra North Central Service Line’s O’Hare Transfer Station. (Photos by Igor Studenkov/For Chronicle Media) 

Commuters will soon be able to buy a one-day pass that will work on CTA ‘L’ and Metra trains, and Pace and CTA buses, thanks to an agreement among the transit agencies. 

While riders can transfer between CTA and Pace relatively seamlessly, integrating with Metra has been harder. The commuter rail agency’s fare system has been a major stumbling block. Metra uses a zone-based fare system, where riders pay more the farther from the Loop they travel, while CTA and Pace riders pay the same no matter the distance. Metra monthly pass users can purchase a Regional Connect add-on pass that allows them to use the other two systems, but until now, that was the only example of a region-wide pass. 

The Regional Day Pass is expected to launch this fall, and will be exclusive to the Ventra app. The pass will give unlimited rides on all three systems until 3 a.m. the following day to account for late-night buses and trains. Transit officials described it as part of a broader effort to attract more riders by making their transit experience as simple and seamless as possible. The pilot program will run for up to six months, at which point the transit agencies can either let it end, extend the pilot or make it permanent. 

Metra has two separate one-day passes. The weekday pass costs the equivalent of two one-way trips within fare zones, while the weekend past costs $7 and works system wide. The Regional Day Pass reflects that – the weekday pass will cost the same as the Metra weekday pass for that fare zone, plus $2.50, while the system-wide weekend pass will cost $10. 

On weekdays, a Regional Day Pass between Metra fare zones 1 and 2 and between fare zones 2

An Orange ‘L’ line rider watches a Metra Heritage Corridor train speed by. 

and 4 will cost $10. The price goes up to $13.50 for fare zones 1-3 and $16 for fare zones 1-4.  

The pass won’t work on the South Shore Line, which provides service to Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood and Northwest Indiana. Under a long-standing agreement between the Regional Transportation Authority and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, Metra doesn’t recognize South Shore Line tickets and passes and vice versa.  

The ability to seamlessly switch among all three systems is especially important in Chicago and the nearby suburbs. There are several examples of Metra providing rail service to Chicago neighborhoods that ‘L’ lines don’t reach, and riders with CTA/Pace passes having to make multiple transfers to get to and from the Loop. The Metra Electric line and its South Chicago and Blue Island branches collectively serve much of the South Side east of the Dan Ryan Expressway, and the Rock Island District’s Beverly branch serves all major streets in the Far South Side’s Beverly and Morgan Park neighborhoods. The Union Pacific Northwest line serves the Far Northwest Side’s Norwood Park and Edison Park neighborhoods, the Milwaukee District West line serves the Chicago West Side’s North Austin, Belmont-Cragin, Galewood and Montclare neighborhoods, the Milwaukee District North line serves the Hermosa, Forest Glen and Edgebrook neighborhoods, and the SouthWest Service provides limited service to the South Side’s Wrightwood and Ashburn neighborhoods. 

In suburbs near Chicago, it isn’t unusual to find all three systems. For example, in Oak Park, the Union Pacific West Metra line and the Green ‘L’ line run parallel to each other, and the village is served by four CTA routes and eight Pace bus routes. 

For suburbs farther out, which only get Metra and/or Pace service, the advantage of the Regional Day Pass is the “last mile” connection. For example, riders traveling to the Chicago Pride Parade from Aurora have to pay $13.50 for a Metra day pass and $5 for a CTA/Pace day pass. The Regional Pass will bring that cost down to $10.  

Over the past few years, all three agencies have tried to reverse pandemic-induced ridership losses by, among other things, simplifying the fare structure, reducing some fares and introducing more cross-agency passes. Since early 2023, CTA’s one-day, three-day and seven-day passes worked only on CTA transit. Effective Feb. 1, Metra reduced its number of fare zones from 11 to four and lowered one-way ticket prices, but it also got rid of two system-wide passes, a $100 Super Saver monthly pass and a $10 weekday one-day pass, in favor of fare zone-based monthly and daily passes. 

Metra approved the agreement establishing the Regional Day Pass on June 12, with the RTA, CTA and Pace following suit on June 20, June 25 and June 26, respectively. Under terms of the agreement, CTA and Pace will get $4 from every pass sold, with the money split between the two agencies using the same formula they use for CTA/Pace passes. According to Erik Llewellyn, Pace’s chief planning officer, the split is based on the percentage of riders who use each service. Metra will keep the remaining Regional Pass revenue. 

The RTA will reimburse the three agencies for losses, so long as the total losses don’t go above $1 million. The pilot program will end in six months or when that money runs out, whichever happens first. 

“This agreement is a major step forward for integrating fare policies and products between the region’s transit agencies as we look toward a post-pandemic future of changing travel patterns and more inter-connectivity between agency services,” said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden. 

During the Tuesday, June 25 CTA board meeting, Molly Poppe, the agency’s chief innovations officer, said that the pass will “unlock the important demographic of riders, because Regional Connect is only available to monthly riders” and “the daily pass really takes the cost down” for those who’d find the monthly pass too expensive. CTA officials believe there is a demand among workplace commuters and students.  

CTA transit board director Roberto Requejo asked what benchmarks the CTA will use to judge the pilot’s effectiveness. Poppe said they would look at “linked trips” – trips also using multiple systems – and the use of one-day disposable “paper” passes riders can get at Ventra vending machines.  

During the Pace Board of Directors meeting, board chair Richard Kwasneski said he was worried that the zone-based fare differences might be a bit of a learning curve for Pace riders used to flat fares. However, overall, he believed that it was a good step in the right direction. 

“I think it’s something that we all talked about before, everybody talked about the universal pass, and this is definitely the first step of providing our customers with this,” Kwasneski said. 

Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger also lauded the pass. 

“By offering flexible and cost-effective fare options, we will continue to attract new riders and provide greater value to existing passengers,” she said.