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RTA put temporary federal bailout money into its base spending, and now it faces a huge fiscal cliff

Wednesday, Dec 7, 2022 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Greg Hinz

By 2026, when federal COVID-relief funds that keep transit running at near-normal levels is set to expire, the operating agencies will be short $730 million a year, roughly 20% of total operating costs, the RTA says.

“If no action is taken, the (operating) agencies and their boards will be faced with difficult choices to cut service, raise fares, or both,” the report continues. “Actions to dramatically cut operating costs could include instituting major layoffs, route or line eliminations, service cuts, station closures, cancellation of capital improvement projects, and other drastic measures that will further damage our transit system and cause massive disruptions to the region’s economy, workforce, and communities.”

Rather than do that, the region should look to increased aid, possibly from the federal government but more likely from sources the state would have to approve. Among them: higher taxes on sales, motor fuels or both; extending the existing RTA sales tax to cover more services; a 5% boost in tolls on the Illinois Tollway; and, more long term, a congestion tax or tax on miles driven.

Such proposals likely will face stiff resistance, even from an Illinois General Assembly in which Democrats have a supermajority of seats in both the House and Senate. Past efforts to impose and expand the current RTA sales tax took years of hard politicking by advocates, and were enacted only with strong support from downtown Chicago businesses whose employees now work from home far more than they did prior to the pandemic.

How did this happen?

* Yvette Shields

The RTA’s service boards received a $3.5 billion federal pandemic lifeline that has plugged budget gaps since 2020. Relief will help balance budgets through 2025 with $1.4 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act; $500 million from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act known as CRRSAA; and more than $1.5 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The projected $730 million budget gap that results in 2026 if service levels are held steady is projected under 10-year financial planning estimates reviewed by agency officials who worked with Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The full report is here.

       

56 Comments
  1. - Big Dipper - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 8:53 am:

    Maybe it’s for the better that Dillard didn’t run for Governor.


  2. - JS Mill - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 8:54 am:

    So the RTA did the thing that we were expressly told not to do with the stimulus money? Hard to feel bad for them and impossible to support additional state revenue or tax increases.


  3. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 8:58 am:

    This is a lack of ridership and federal support once the COVID money runs up issues. It’s not an accounting issues. The agencies were supposed to use the COVID money to cover their operating costs.


  4. - Donnie Elgin - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:05 am:

    I drive by two Milwaukee District West Metra stations. Pre-pandemic their lots were nearly always full. Now the lots are mostly empty. The only time one of them was full was for a “Polar Express” event. The need for a huge amount of employees to schlep into the city for their jobs is vastly diminished - so instead of seeking a funding solution for an antiquated service model - how about modifying their cost structure?


  5. - DoggoneDouble - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:06 am:

    This headline is misleading, the federal covid relief money was for operations, which is what it was used for. It was a one time thing to keep buses and trains going in a pandemic and it is running out but ridership is not back so they have a problem, but so what’s with the gotcha headline here? Pretty sure NYC has the same issue.


  6. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:18 am:

    ===This headline is misleading … It was a one time thing===

    As the headline accurately states. Apparently, little to no thought was put into what would happen when the money ran out.


  7. - Just Me 2 - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:19 am:

    DoggoneDouble is right; the funds were specifically for operations, and those operations also included more cleaning and services to avoid crowded buses and trains.


  8. - Dent buster - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:21 am:

    They need to approach it honestly and open…major service cuts,are required. Ridership is never going to return to find itcat current levels. Taxpayers can’t be expected to dumps billions into empty train ride. Time to take a deep breath and act accordingly.


  9. - Amalia - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:26 am:

    Canty moves from the Board to the Legislature. Dillard, really? Pang used to work for Dixon and Daley. I expect more from these people. Perhaps resignations are in order. What the what, RTA board?


  10. - BoomTown - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:34 am:

    “As the headline accurately states. Apparently, little to no thought was put into what would happen when the money ran out.”

    Isn’t this an article about a plan published 3 years before the money ran out with ideas of what to do? Can’t say they didn’t warn us


  11. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:39 am:

    ===Can’t say they didn’t warn us ===

    Can’t say they did anything about it, either.


  12. - Regular democrat - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:42 am:

    Anytime someone can incorporate the word schlep in to a comment deserves kudos. Recognition of the problem this far out should prevent future mistakes and miscalculations one would hope.


  13. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:44 am:

    ===Recognition of the problem this far out should prevent future mistakes and miscalculations===

    Not if they continue doing what they’ve been doing.


  14. - Anyone Remember - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:45 am:

    Expected better from Kirk Dillard.


  15. - Chicagonk - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:47 am:

    Service cuts are the answer. Low ridership is the new normal and riders will adapt to changing schedules.


  16. - Occam - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:53 am:

    Page 17 of this report contains the following heading: “Inaction, Service Cuts, and Fare Increases are Not Acceptable–or Sustainable”.

    These people are not willing to respond to reality. Their ridership in October 2022 was at 41% of the October 2019 levels. They have an infrastructure and employee base designed to service a customer base about 2 1/2 times current levels. These riders are not coming back.

    Who is going to tell them they need to adjust to match the new reality?


  17. - ChicagoBars - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 9:55 am:

    I may have mentioned this on social media once or twice but the infuriating thing is the CTA & RTA seem in no hurry at all to understand and adapt to rider needs post-Covid. At least not until the Federal money runs out.

    The CTA’s “Meeting the Moment” plan is addressing (eventually) (maybe) their biggest dumpster fire issues but it does nothing to bring riders back, just tries to stop the bleeding. To quote an old Chicago City Hall hand “Don’t make your lack of planning my emergency” and right now it seems the RTA & CTA plan is indeed to keep running on Federal Covid aid until that money runs out and then ask for more permanent state & local taxes to keep the status quo going. It’s a disheartening failure of transit leadership.


  18. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:08 am:

    What ChicagoBars said.


  19. - Responsa - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:09 am:

    Many fewer are taking the train. Example: In past years (pre-covid) on election day at my polling place we workers could always almost perfectly gauge when there would be busy peaks based on the printed departure and arrival schedule of the nearby Northline trains both mornings and evenings. We even commented on this on Nov. 8 that there was no evident train schedule impact whatsoever. RTA has too few riders, a sprawling and aging infrastructure, a big financial mess on its hands–and seemingly only bad options.


  20. - Jerry - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:10 am:

    Great post!

    Been asking this question for months. The CTA had no business rebuilding 4 stations on the Red Line knowing the fiscal cliff is on the horizon. And mopping the train platforms was a huge waste of money. No one is gonna say yes to a tax increase for this waste.


  21. - Jerry - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:27 am:

    I ride the Blue and Red lines everyday. During evening rush the Red line from Jackson to Belmont (and Wilson at times) has gotten fuller and busier. Unsure if it has returned to pre-pandemic levels. The Forest Park branch of the Blue has never been busy except in
    the evening from Western on in.


  22. - MisterJayEm - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:30 am:

    Public transit going down the drain is a much bigger threat to Chicago’s viability than anyone currently in power comprehends.

    – MrJM


  23. - Stuck in Celliniland - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:31 am:

    ==Maybe it’s for the better that Dillard didn’t run for Governor.==

    And to boot, also promising that as Governor he will become like the second coming of Jim Edgar.


  24. - Oswego Willy - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:35 am:

    ===Jim Edgar===

    Left the state with a surplus, at least tried to address pension funding, left too with positive polling.

    It’s not folks like you that don’t want Edgar for bitter reasons, it’s the GOP cult conservatives that see Edgar as liberal.

    Understand what you speak to GOP awareness.


  25. - Sonny - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:13 am:

    Who expected anything from perennial blue ribbon panel member and decades-long resume builder like Dillard?


  26. - The Opinions Bureau - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:15 am:

    The structure of the RTA and the service boards is a relic of the bad old days where the City of Chicago and the suburbs had a far more acrimonious relationship. There’s been progress on that front but the authority hasn’t been modernized to reflect it. The outcome is that transit service in the region still looks like it did in the 80s- get folks downtown during the day, back out at night. Riding off-peak or on weekends and you’re rolling the dice (especially Metra/Pace but increasingly so with CTA.)

    City residents ride Metra/Pace. Suburbanites ride CTA. There should be shared regional decision-making power. Like MrJM said, if we muck this up, we’re destroying a critical asset for the City, region, and state.


  27. - JS Mill - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:19 am:

    The RTA has long had a ridership issue on buses outside of the city.

    This seems like a fixable issue with time to make the adjustments- fewer riders should equal fewer trains and buses and fewer employees needed. I don’t know what their annual attrition rate is for employees, but that could help determine how fast and deep cuts would need to go.


  28. - Chicago Urbanist - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:35 am:

    The RTA used this federal funding as it was intended: to cover operational expenses during the drop in revenue during Covid.

    CTA and Metra currently have different issues. CTA doesn’t have enough workers to run frequent service, which has led to fewer riders. Once they get back to their regular frequencies, it’s likely that ridership will recover to pre-pandemic levels and their budget hole will be smaller (or disappear).

    Metra’s schedules are designed for downtown office commuters, which are fewer now than they were pre-pandemic. They are unwilling to learn from other agencies outside the US who have shifted away from the rush hour peak model to more consistent, frequent service around the clock. Frequent service outside peak hours on lines like UP-N and ME would see much higher ridership, especially if there are fare transfers from Metra to CTA.

    Chicagoland cannot function without public transit. RTA provides over a million trips per day. Without them, we would see a million additional car trips. The state needs to step in to guarantee funding, while also forcing the RTA to start adopting international best practices that can provide better service and keep the agency solvent.


  29. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:37 am:

    ===The RTA used this federal funding as it was intended===

    So did the state, but you don’t see it facing a 20 percent budgetary shortfall in a few years.


  30. - Congestion hater - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:48 am:

    === This seems like a fixable issue with time to make the adjustments- fewer riders should equal fewer trains and buses and fewer employees needed. ===

    If you love congestion, air and noise pollution, climate change, traffic deaths, and generally low quality of life, this is a great take. I for one would prefer that we not enter a transit death spiral by further reducing service, driving (no pun intended) more users into 5 ton hunks of metal used to get an individual person around a region that has some of the best legacy public transportation infrastructure in North American and that could dramatically increase ridership with improved operations and disincentives to driving aligned to the massive negative externalities associated with cars.


  31. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:53 am:

    ===So did the state, but you don’t see it facing a 20 percent budgetary shortfall in a few years.===

    Apples to oranges. The state’s revenue comes from different source. Most of the transit agencies’ revenue for their operations comes from ridership, which has declined since the pandemic.


  32. - dave ristau - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 11:58 am:

    CTA needs better physical assets (Rail Cars and Rail Beds). The Westside arm of the CTA Blue Line serves Garfield Park, South Lawndale and Austin. The West Leg of the CTA is a failure because students, workers and the poor do not use it. I avoid using the West Leg of the Blue Line because it is slow, unsafe and dirty. 50 years ago, the time From Austin Boulevard to Racine Avenue was 11 minutes. Today The time From Austin Boulevard to Racine Avenue is 20 minutes. Why do the poor always suffer? Why is climate change always ignored? Why are we avoiding the most environmentally friendly way to travel? Tens of billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan to improve intercity rail transportation. Where did this money go? Why do we have old, unsafe and slow trains and facilities? Why can’t we have trains like Washington DC, Tokyo or the Ohare Airport Shuttle?


  33. - Jerry - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:00 pm:

    Chicagoland cannot function without public transit. Chicago Urbanist

    Agreed!


  34. - Lincoln Lad - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:04 pm:

    If there is an assumption of returning ridership, that is not happening anytime soon. Ripple on the pandemic pond that isn’t going away anytime soon


  35. - Hamlets Ghost - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:07 pm:

    Conventional wisdom is that tele-work has reduced commuting. However, many lower paying jobs cannot be done remotely. Cutting service won’t hurt those who work via Zoom or Teams and email but it will hurt those at the lower end of the pay scales.

    What we do about that is far from obvious.


  36. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:13 pm:

    ===which has declined since the pandemic===

    No kidding. And no adequate adjustments have been made to either increase ridership or lower costs.


  37. - BoomTown - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:16 pm:

    How would you recommend lowering costs without further hurting service frequency or quality of transit for riders? Things seem bare bones as they are


  38. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:28 pm:

    ===No kidding. And no adequate adjustments have been made to either increase ridership or lower costs.===

    I agree, but it is very easy to dunk on CTA and transit without offering any real solutions. Service cuts are going to hurt a lot of vulnerable people who can’t work from home. CTA did lower its 30-day pass prices recently, which was helpful if you actually use the system a lot.


  39. - Give Us Barabbas - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:36 pm:

    Here’s a radical and impractical idea: reduce fares to a token amount or zero. Instead pay for everything from taxes and federal subsidies. It creates a paradigm shift in usage that has ripple effects that are economically and socially positive.


  40. - Chicago Urbanist - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:41 pm:

    Unfortunately there is not much that the RTA could do to lower its costs without negatively impacting service. And things that could reduce costs in the medium to long term (eg, installing fare gates at Metra stations to remove conductors) are very capital intensive in the short run.

    The CTA has recovered about 50% of its pre-pandemic ridership, with buses recovering more than rail (probably due to fewer peak hour, white collar commuters). The CTA still has time to continue addressing issues like reliability and safety, which will encourage more riders to return.

    I’m much less optimistic about Metra, which has a harder problem to overcome and has much less competent leadership. They refuse to look at what has worked abroad and adapt it to the Chicago context.

    The state needs to start planning now to find ways to fill the budget hole until ridership returns. And the state should also look at other policies that can drive new riders to transit over the medium term so that the agency can get a better fiscal footing. State level laws that require density around Metra stops and don’t allow municipalities to mandate parking in new developments can contribute to higher ridership in the medium to long term.


  41. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:42 pm:

    ===without offering any real solutions===

    A whole lot of people are paid a whole lot of money over there to do that. If they can’t, then find new people.


  42. - Anyone Remember - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:49 pm:

    ” … don’t want Edgar for bitter reasons … .”

    Don’t want Edgar because the Ramp was too gradual for too long. Remember between FY 2008 and FY 2014 Ramp requirements quadrupled. Proft / Tillman / IPI / Center Square will live off the consequences of “too gradual” until 2045.


  43. - Oswego Willy - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:53 pm:

    ===Ramp was too gradual for too long. Remember between FY 2008 and FY 2014 Ramp requirements quadrupled. Proft / Tillman / IPI / Center Square will live off the consequences of “too gradual” until 2045.===

    Like the RTA and to the post too, I suppose,

    All these smart folks making so much money or sitting in chambers in the GA seemingly can’t find answers or refuse to see what options are available, maybe the wrong folks are in positions to help things get better.


  44. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 12:55 pm:

    Let’s move along. The ramp is way off topic.


  45. - yinn - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 1:23 pm:

    Recently read this article from Governing about the costs of collecting fares and why some transit systems have stopped doing it. https://www.governing.com/community/is-it-time-to-rip-out-the-farebox.html


  46. - JJJJJJJJJJ - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 2:32 pm:

    I’m sure there are things RTA can do to increase ridership, but I wonder whether they’d make much of an impact without pairing it with policies that make driving less desirable. That’s why I’m glad they continue to advocate for congestion pricing.

    Someone driving into the city and someone taking metra into the city are not equal public policy outcomes. The driver adds to congestion, negatively affects land use by requiring more parking, negatively impacts air quality, partakes in one of the most dangerous activities one can do on a daily basis, and (most crucially) contributes to global warming.

    I don’t know enough to know whether RTA is mismangaed, but I have to think part of them holding off on cutting services or increasing fares is due to a genuine belief that people taking public transit is a good policy outcome in its own right. And cutting service and/or increasing fares starts a downward spiral from public transit and towards cars, which is a problem.


  47. - James the Intelligent - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 2:36 pm:

    I work for Metra and we are just as bad or worse. We are surviving on the Fed money though ‘25 (roughly 20% of our budget), ridership is aroingmd 60%, and we are fully staffed and adding trains. Very frustrating.


  48. - Congestion hater - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 2:42 pm:

    ===I’m much less optimistic about Metra, which has a harder problem to overcome and has much less competent leadership. They refuse to look at what has worked abroad and adapt it to the Chicago context.===

    We need political leadership (in the state house, governor’s mansion, and I’d argue most importantly 5th floor of city hall) demanding that RTA and Metra transform our heritage rail infrastructure into RER/S-Bahn style regional rail, with integration across systems. While the structure of the Metra board may be locked into a suburban/commuter rail paradigm, without leadership from outside of Metra agitating for change, pointing out the absurdity of all of this wasted infrastructure and the possibilities for a future of reliable and integrated regional public transportation, we’re not going anywhere but more highway miles, more vehicle miles traveled, more congestion, more pollution, etc.


  49. - Congestion hater - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 2:44 pm:

    === I work for Metra and we are just as bad or worse. We are surviving on the Fed money though ‘25 (roughly 20% of our budget), ridership is aroingmd 60%, and we are fully staffed and adding trains. Very frustrating. ===

    Has anyone at Metra ever been to a city with a functioning regional rail system? Does anyone even understand the concept of people getting around reliably throughout the day for varied reasons by means other than personal vehicle? Does anyone at Metra actually ride Metra for anything other than a 9-5 commute from suburbs to downtown?


  50. - Chicago Cynic - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 3:24 pm:

    Crain’s has been doing a great job keeping tabs on how many of us are back in the office. The answer is currently less than 50% of pre-pandemic levels. Further, as someone who is downtown every day I’m in town, I can tell you that the patterns have changed dramatically. Nobody is in the office anymore on Friday and not very many are in on Monday. I drive and those are easy traffic days. Point being is that change is needed for CTA/RTA. The only ones who don’t seem to realize that are CTA/RTA.

    https://www.chicagobusiness.com/workplace/return-to-office-tracking-chicago


  51. - Amalia - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 3:25 pm:

    There’s a board of directors and a citizens advisory board which may or may not focus only on accessibility issues. which or whatever, both of these entities should receive questions and comment about this funding situation whenever they next meet.


  52. - BoomTown - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 3:37 pm:

    ===There’s a board of directors and a citizens advisory board which may or may not focus only on accessibility issues. which or whatever, both of these entities should receive questions and comment about this funding situation whenever they next meet===

    -The board has been talking about this every month since the pandemic started and giving a recap on how much relief money is left each month, none of this is a surprise, except to Rich apparently


  53. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 3:51 pm:

    ===except to Rich apparently===

    Bite me.


  54. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 3:52 pm:

    Also, posting under two different screen names can get you banned.


  55. - Amalia - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 6:50 pm:

    @BoomTown, or whomever you are, apparently if the board has been talking about it they have also not been doing anything about it, a recap is not doing anything about it. I’m happy this post is here for us to comment and wonder and worry because it is a big problem. My comment that questions and commentary should come to the boards still stands.


  56. - Reggie - Wednesday, Dec 7, 22 @ 10:49 pm:

    I don’t see transit ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels within the next two years. Maybe ever. WFH policies (anyone remember 2020 work-life balance initiatives?) and technologies that enable them (cloud, unlimited broadband data) were growing in adoption even before COVID. The RTA needs to match its services with this new work model. Metra service ideas from comments here? Maybe more on-demand service and less fixed routes for Pace?

    These issues should have been the main focus of the RTA’s new regional plan. They rehashed the same vision, goals and objectives from previous plans instead. Sadly, their new plan is not the answer.


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