On a recent weekday morning at Chicago’s Jefferson Park Blue Line station, Bobby Patel manned a magazine stand from behind a plastic screen. A sign at the door reads, “one customer at a time.”
On an average weekday before the pandemic, thousands of commuters would pass through the Jefferson Park Transit Center on the city’s Northwest Side. It’s home to the Blue Line, 9 CTA buses, several suburban PACE buses and a METRA commuter rail stop.
But on that weekday morning – though it was technically rush hour – the station was nearly empty.
“Business is going super down here, like before we were super busy,” Patel said, adding that his boss has already reduced his hours because business is slow. Outside the shop, city buses appeared to outnumber the few customers who were waiting to board them.
For many workers and students in the Chicago area, the morning commute feels like a distant memory. And that’s dealt a huge financial blow to the transit agencies who rely on fares to balance their budget, raising questions about how quickly they’ll be able to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CTA, the nation’s second-largest public transit operator, reported an 80% drop in ridership during the early months of the pandemic. For METRA, which runs commuter trains between the city and the suburbs, the drop was 90%.
These staggering losses in ridership have been happening in cities across the country. Many have responded with cuts to service. But Chicago has been the only major city to continue providing normal service on trains and buses — all while spending more money than budgeted on cleaning supplies and protective gear for workers.
The CTA’s $1.6 billion budget for next year relies on a second round of federal COVID-19 relief that’s still not a sure thing. Without that money the agency faces a nearly $400 million deficit for next year if ridership levels remain this low.
“We could be looking at drastic cuts to CTA service,” CTA spokesman Brian Steele told WBEZ. “These would be cuts that would impact both bus and rail service and would impact routes and lines across the city.”
Steele wouldn’t specify which routes could be cut, or for how long. The last time the CTA faced a major budget crunch was ten years ago, when more than 1,000 transit workers were laid off. And in 1997, faced with a ballooning deficit and a decline in ridership, the agency eliminated 15 bus lines to avoid a fare hike.
“Simply put, there is no way we can continue to offer the level of service that we are now without additional federal funding,” Steele said.
But U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago, says transit must stay afloat, despite the financial pressures. He represents neighborhoods that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
A recent mobility study from the Active Transportation Alliance found low-paid, essential workers who didn’t have the benefit of working from home or other means of transportation made up a majority of public transit riders during the pandemic.
“And they’ve kept our people moving, especially frontline workers, and they kept our economy afloat during the most uncertain times,” Garcia said during a recent virtual event hosted by the ATA, which advocates for public transit and more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets. “ Nurses heading into work on the front lines of this pandemic, grocery store workers going to work to stack the shelves, janitors and homecare workers keeping our workplaces and our loved ones safe.”
“Public transit is not an option, public transit is a lifeline,” Garcia said earlier this month while speaking to a virtual event hosted by the Active Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates for public transit and more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets. “CTA trains and Pace buses are the arteries of this city.”
Commuter rails optimistic, despite huge drop in ridership
Before the pandemic, Metra provided about 281,000 rides each weekday. But since March, ridership on the nation’s largest commuter railroad system, has collapsed.
Still, it’s a necessity for the riders who are still using it. Wendy Brown, of northwest suburban Wood Dale, said she’s been commuting for eight years in mostly packed train cars.
But since March, they’ve been almost empty.
“There were many days that I was completely alone in a car and didn’t even see a conductor,” Brown said. “They didn’t collect any tickets for about two months. I’m not really sure how long Metra or any business for that matter can continue to survive when they go from a booming business to 10% of their revenue. I honestly don’t know how anyone can survive that.”
For her part, Brown said she plans to do what she can to be a “constant commuter.”
“I need Metra,” she said.
Like the CTA, Metra had been expecting to have a booming 2020, with ridership on the rise. But when society shut down last March, Metra was forced to suspend service on about half of its nearly 700 trains each weekday.
Last Spring, the federal government moved quickly to provide emergency funding to Metra and other transit agencies across the country to make up for the loss in ridership.
Metra received close to $480 million dollars from the CARES Act, much of it going to make up lost fare revenues in this year’s and next year’s budgets.
But even with that, Metra says it still needs to cut some $70 million from its 2021 budget if Congress doesn’t come through with additional money.
Metra CEO James Derwinski told WBEZ the agency expects to start next year with less than 20% of it’s pre-pandemic ridership – even less than it had expected.
“So we’re going to start off the year, a little bit behind the curve,” he said.
Metra’s 2021 operating budget is $127 million less than its 2020 budget, according to Metra officials. The estimate revenue from passengers will be $239 million less in 2021 than in 2020.
Still, Derwinski said Metra is committed to providing service to its 11 lines and 242 stations in a region that covers 3,700-square-miles.
And, he said, Metra plans to do it without raising fares.
That’s why Derwinski is hopeful additional federal stimulus money comes through by mid-year.
“Definitely, the earlier the better,” he said. ““If we don’t see that money coming in, we’re going to have to start making strategic decisions based on, you know, the reality of what the budget is.”.
Those decisions involve finding other ways to cut expenses or raise revenue – without raising fares, Derwinski said.
But recovery is also dependent on Chicago employers bringing their workers back downtown – and getting those workers to feel safe commuting on the train with frequent cleaning, social distancing and a mask mandate.
Like Metra, the South Shore Train Service from Northwest Indiana has seen its ridership plummet. But the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, or NICTD, should survive next year without making any drastic cuts or layoffs, said Chief Operating Officer Michael Noland.
The NICTD operates the South Shore train, which runs between Chicago and South Bend. It received $73 million in CARES Act funds, according to officials.
And like Metra, having South Shore riders feel safe is an ongoing priority.
“Our trains have never been cleaner,” Noland said. “We’re using ultraviolet lights. We’ve got fogging systems, electro-static sprayers. It’s going to be a safer environment when we finally get through COVID and there’s a vaccine.”
Steep reductions at PACE
Pace Suburban Bus, the Chicago area’s regional bus service, is expecting a $53 million budget deficit heading into 2021. But that hole is projected to grow to $60 million in 2022, said Pace executive director Rocky Donahue.
“That’s assuming if nothing changes, meaning ridership doesn’t come back, the economy doesn’t come back, we would have a problem in 12 to 14 months,” Donahue.
Prior to the pandemic, a 100,000 people used Pace every day. The pandemic cut that by 70,000 when it hit, Donahue said.
“We’ve suspended or reduced service on 98 routes in our system,” he said. “We only have 220 routes in the whole system so we’ve taken corrective action on almost 50 percent of them.”
He says the bus system is facing more than $100 million in lost revenue in this year’s and next year’s budgets. Donahue said CARES Act funds from Congress will cover some of its deficit heading into 2021 – but not for 2022.
And while the pandemic continues to keep ridership down, Donahue said 40,000 people continue to take Pace every day – many heading to those lucrative and expanding packaging jobs at Amazon and UPS.
Like Derwinski over at Metra, Donahue doesn’t want to increase fares.
“When you raise fares, you also lose riders. Right now, we’re trying to attract ridership back to the system,” Donahue said.
But he says his primary commitment is to keep the bus service running.
“If we’re not here when people need to get back, it’s just going to slow down the economic activity,” Donahue said. “So there’s a distinct advantage to keep us propped up for when the region is ready to recover that we’re here for them.”
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.