Warning bells | Feature | Chicago Reader

Warning bells 

With a Democrat in the governor's office, Metra expects to finally get an influx of cash—but will it be enough to make up for the years-long backlog?

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SOPHIA PAPPAS
  • Sophia Pappas

"New Urbanist Memes for Transit­-Oriented Teens," known as NUMTOT, the 139,000-member Facebook group of people whom The Guardian has called "millennials who find fixing public transport sexy," was launched here in Illinois by University of Chicago students. About 4,900 of the group's members say on their Facebook profiles they live in Chicago, the second­-most of any city. (New York is first.)

NUMTOT members—part of a growing movement of young people across the world invested in improving life in cities, with a special focus on equitable and climate-friendly transit—joke regularly about banning cars. For example, a picture of an automobile covered in menacing-looking icicles was shared with the caption "Is this the final boss in the fight to ban cars?" They also post pictures of cute dogs boarding buses and trains and argue in the comments about the best transit policy. (Would congestion pricing in New York City work well to fund the MTA, or would it just punish poor people?) When one member recently posted a screenshot of a tweet from Metra, Chicago's commuter rail system, about its urgent need for sustainable funding, the post received 1,800 reactions and 130 comments.

Yet Metra seems distant from the movement of progressive transit-oriented millennials. The 11-member Metra board, which convenes in a nondescript boardroom on the 13th floor of the agency's stately West Loop building, skews older and is not diverse: it includes one black man, one black woman, and nine white men. At three Metra meetings in late 2018, for example, I appeared to be the only millennial in the room.

Millennials' fondness for public transit is rarely discussed. At the November meeting, the topic of millennials came up only because board member John Plante, appointed to represent Cook County's northern suburbs, pointed to a report suggesting that though millennials tend to settle down later, they will eventually move to the suburbs once they get married and have children, which he said would make them candidates for Metra's service. Such comments have made it clear that the board sees Metra's passenger base as suburban residents commuting into the city for work, even though several Metra lines have stops within the city but outside of downtown. In the same board meeting, one member argued that Metra is important because attracting corporations to downtown Chicago could economically revitalize Illinois, and people working at those corporations will want to live in the suburbs. "Metra's the future," Ken Koehler, who represents McHenry County, said emphatically. "It's not CTA."

Metra's board and staff warn that service is jeopardized by the fact that the commuter rail agency is billions short on the capital funding needed to repair and replace its aging infrastructure. With a new governor in office, a bill to provide state funding for Metra and other infrastructure projects seems more likely than it has in years. But Metra faces the daunting task of convincing legislators to fund it even as infrastructure projects compete for attention. Metra hopes to rally its riders to make the case to state government, but some riders are already skeptical that Metra needs any more money after several years of fare increases. And it must make the case for sustained investment in a commuter rail system as international cities increasingly turn to the more expansive, urbanist-preferred "regional rail" model, serving a base beyond typical suburban commuters.

"We are a big component of the success of this region and that's what we have to sell," said Metra CEO Jim Derwinski at a board meeting in November. "This is gonna be hard work and it's gonna be big stuff."

It's not just the region's success at stake: in a planet increasingly jeopardized by climate change, it's crucial for the state to turn away from car-centric infrastructure and invest in transportation options that limit emissions. Yet Metra rarely mentions climate change in its pleas for capital funding. As it stands, though it needs all the help it can get, the suburban-focused Metra board is out of touch with the transit-championing, Green-New-Deal-supporting young people who would be likely to rally around supporting public transit.

It has been nine long years since the state of Illinois gave Metra any capital funding, which can be used to repair, replace, and build infrastructure like trains and tracks (as opposed to operations funding, which is used for the system's day-to-day—paying staff, handling ticket sales, and much more). Metra currently subsists on an approximately $200 million yearly capital budget of mostly federal funds, which is far below what it needs to replace the aging stock and crumbling bridges inherited when the agency took over commuter rail service from private railroads in 1980. Forty percent of Metra's assets are now in "marginal or worn" condition, according to its 2018 "State of the System" report. Metra has little to spend on regular infrastructure maintenance, making fixes more expensive in the long run.

"I think there are different people out there that believe that the fares themselves cover everything to operate this system and that's so incorrect," Derwinski told me in an interview. "They cover 50 percent of the operations costs and [that] doesn't even take into consideration any of the capital replacement costs, let alone the cost to replace the oldest stuff and make the system much more modern and efficient." (In fact, there is no public transit system in the U.S. that pays for itself through fares.) Metra has raised fares six times since 2011. In 2018, the Metra board decided against hiking ticket prices, concluding that the additional costs would only hurt riders without providing enough to substantially improve the capital situation.

Meanwhile, despite its aged assets, the system continues to run 709 trains a day, fetching commuters from the corners of the Chicagoland region and ferrying them to and from the Loop and West Loop, serving an average of nearly 290,000 passengers each weekday, making it the country's most-used commuter rail system after the three systems serving the New York City area. The next-biggest commuter rail agency, SEPTA, which services a five-county area that includes Philadelphia, sees about only half as many daily passengers. (Metra is much smaller than its city counterpart—by comparison, CTA trains saw an average of 740,000 daily passengers last year.)

The capital backlog is beginning to catch up with service. For example, on December 3, an engine fire on a train on the Milwaukee District line forced passengers to evacuate. That same day, engine problems on a Heritage Corridor train stranded passengers for nearly three hours. Metra Board of Directors chair Norman Carlson later said these events showed Metra equipment is reaching a "point of inflection."

With Republican Bruce Rauner in the governor's seat, there was little movement toward a new capital bill for Illinois infrastructure. The former governor announced his support for a capital bill at times during his tenure, but did not want to raise taxes to fund it. Instead, he wanted to pay for the bill by reducing taxes and regulations on corporations, which he claimed would induce more businesses to come to Illinois, increasing the tax base. But that bill would likely have been opposed by a Democrat-controlled legislature, and Rauner never backed up his vocal support with concrete proposals.

But new Democratic governor J.B. Pritzker has expressed support for such a bill, and since 25 percent of the current General Assembly legislators are newly elected, Metra sees an opportunity to advocate for its needs. "Governor Pritzker believes infrastructure needs in Illinois have been neglected for too long and looks forward to working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass a comprehensive capital plan that will bring Illinois' infrastructure into the 21st century," said Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Pritzker, in an e-mail to the Reader. (Abudayyeh did not address specific questions about whether that bill would definitely include money for Metra.)

With that in mind, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski has put together a plan to ask for $5 billion from the state for the next five to seven years. Even this is short of the $6.1 billion that would put Metra in a "state of good repair" (meaning it has no backlog of needed repair projects) and the over $11 billion that the Regional Transportation Authority estimates Metra needs for maintenance. At board meetings at the end of last year, Derwinski had suggested that money could go toward buying new locomotives and train cars, repairing more bridges, improving stations, adding more express trains, and more.

One recent setback is that the Restoring Illinois Infrastructure Committee, convened in late November by Pritzker's transition team, included the president of the CTA and the board chair of Amtrak—but not Derwinski or any of the 11 members of Metra's Board of Directors, who are appointed by the elected leaders of Chicago, suburban Cook County, and the collar counties.

In order to bolster its chances with the legislators, Metra is pleading its case to riders and encouraging them to contact state representatives. In addition to holding meetings across the region, Metra plans to pass out information about the budget crisis on trains and continue to spread the word via social media, radio, and television.

"People definitely need to feel empowered to talk about transportation," said Audrey Wennink, who directs transportation efforts for the Metropolitan Planning Council, an organization that researches and advocates solutions for an "equitable, sustainable, and prosperous Chicago region." "Legislators say they don't hear as much about transportation as they do about other issues. This is the time for them to hear from businesses, from riders of the system, about how much transportation affects their lives."

Beyond advocating for state funding, an additional option for Metra to explore is issuing bonds. Though the Regional Transportation Authority provides some money from bonds issued on Metra's behalf, Metra also has the legal authority to issue up to $1 billion in its own bonds—which could make a sizable dent in the backlog. The agency has never taken advantage of this, and prides itself on not relying on borrowing money. In the introduction to its 2019 budget, Metra wrote, "We are also good stewards of the public dollar. We do not overspend, and we have not mortgaged our future by borrowing money we cannot repay." (The CTA has been issuing bonds since 2003 for buying and renovating infrastructure and currently has about $5 million in debt.)

Critics, though, argue Metra could make more use of its authority to borrow money. While it's true that Metra would have to budget for paying off bonds, the funds from borrowing would ideally improve the equipment and go towards regular maintenance, reducing the likelihood of costly emergency repairs and ultimately saving money.

Metra's strategy is like "insisting that you're going to buy a house in cash, but not take out a mortgage, but your income is not remotely close enough to ever buy a house in cash," said Daniel Kay Hertz, research director for Chicago's Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. "It's a normal part of buying a house to take out a mortgage. It's a normal part of doing massive infrastructure things to take out a reasonable amount of bonds."

While bonds could help Metra with its infrastructure needs, borrowing money would supplement but not replace needed sustainable state funding. The question remains, of course, as to how perpetually cash-strapped Illinois will pay for capital funding for Metra and other needed infrastructure projects. Pritzker has previously suggested legalizing and taxing marijuana or expanding gaming taxes as options. Rahm Emanuel has pushed for a 20 to 30 cents per gallon increase in the state's gas tax, which has not been raised in three decades, and 26 suburban mayors have signed on in agreement. But the proposal is controversial, as tax hikes nearly always are—including among some Metra board members who are also mayors of local suburbs.

"In the scheme of things, a fuel tax is far less controversial [than other revenue options] . . . most other states have raised their fuel taxes," said Wennink. "Given that we have not raised it in 30 years and it's not indexed to inflation, it's a very logical choice. It's also logical because it's a user fee. People who are using the transportation system are paying to use it." Taxing fuel to pay for public transit and other infrastructure improvements is also a way to encourage people to move toward greener forms of transportation, including walking, biking, and public transit. "The transportation sector contributes more than a quarter of greenhouse gases. It's a very significant contributor, and so there's a great opportunity for making an impact through transportation," Wennink said.

Derwinski said a well-functioning Metra makes a big impact on reducing emissions. "The fact of the matter is, you know, when we move 1,700 people in a train, you could put our dirtiest locomotive on there and we still blow away the emissions that would have been produced by 1,700 different cars trying to idle their way downtown, trying to get into that traffic jam, that congestion," Derwinski said. Electrifying the whole system would be the cleanest option, but it's costly.

On a cold November morning at the Metra stop in south suburban Harvey, I watched passengers assemble for the weekday commute. In the 20-minute intervals between trains, riders gathered in the lightly heated shelters on either end of the platform, which emptied out each time bells announced an incoming train. Repeat.

At this station, across from a Pace bus terminal, around 500 people board trains each day, according to Metra's most recent ridership counts; nearby at 147th St/Sibley Blvd, there are nearly 1,000 riders. This makes that station among the most-used on the Metra Electric, Metra's only electric-powered line, which travels through the south side and south suburbs. (The line's most popular station is Hyde Park's 55th-56th-57th Street, which sees 1,500 daily boardings.)

One rider waiting on the stairs was William Whittaker, a longtime Harvey resident who takes the train every day to get to his marketing job downtown. "I couldn't be happier," he said. "I took a new job down there. I didn't want to work downtown again but since it was right off the Metra stop I said I'd take the job."

In the mid-platform shelter, Kamiyah McAdory, who just moved to Harvey a few months earlier, was waiting for a northbound train for a job at a Subway sandwich shop in Hyde Park. She wishes Metra service was cheaper (a ticket from Harvey to Hyde Park costs $5.50 each way; a monthly unlimited pass is $159.50), but otherwise is glad to be able to get to her job quickly. "[Without Metra] I would have to take the regular trains and regular buses," she said. "It's too far, and then I would have to probably look for another job, since I'm not driving at the moment."

Meanwhile, home care aide Omar Qahhaar was waiting for one of the rarer southbound trains to pull up on the other side of the platform. He needed Metra to get to Richton Park, but he was frustrated that morning southbound trains from Harvey are so infrequent and, he said, often late. "I hit [Metra] up all the time. I complain," he said, and Metra responded that "they have to prioritize what's more important, basically, to them." (Metra, in its reports, says Metra Electric trains were on time 97.7 percent of the time in 2018.)

Reverse-commute passengers face long waits because Metra is primarily designed to bring suburban commuters downtown in the morning and take them home in the evening, rather than to serve people traveling in the opposite direction and at off-peak times. But Metra's service doesn't necessarily have to be so narrow, according to Yonah Freemark, a PhD candidate in urban planning at MIT who formerly worked for Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council. The concept of "commuter rail"—a service designed specifically for relatively higher income people commuting to 9 to 5 jobs—is mostly unique to the United States. Peer rail systems in other countries operate as "regional rail" systems that run all day in multiple directions—helpful for riders like Qahhaar who need to travel to jobs in the opposite direction of a region's central business district. Freemark thinks that Metra should consider this model, especially given the diverse region it serves.

"If your entire philosophy . . . is designed around upper-middle-class people commuting downtown, but the neighborhood you're serving is filled with people who have other needs, then you have to question whether you're doing the right thing as a transportation provider," Freemark said.

While transforming the service might seem far-fetched for cash-strapped Metra, Freemark said that more innovation and expanded service could ultimately help Metra gain more riders and be a more attractive candidate for sustained funding. But such a strategy would likely require investment and vision from state or county politicians, he said. "Metra could be a leader in changing the way we think about transit service."

I asked Derwinski about the regional rail model supported by Freemark and other urbanists. He said, "We've looked at that," but noted that it "comes down to cost." Metra did recently agree to a public-private partnership with economic development corporation Lake County Partners to run reverse-commute service from downtown to Lake Forest. But Derwinski said that Metra's ability to expand service is complicated by the fact that Metra only owns four of the lines where its trains run; the rest are owned by other railroads.

"And so for us to say we just want to double the trains, that's probably going to be a huge negotiation, would probably be a lot more infrastructure put into place so that they would be able to preserve their freight business," he said. The Metra Electric might be a place to experiment because it doesn't cross any other freight railroads; however, he said, "there has to be some study in the front of that that says people have a need to go back and forth, back and forth."

Activists on the south side have campaigned for increased service, akin to rapid transit, on the Metra Electric for years, since the line travels through many far south side communities without easy access to el service. Riders of the Metra Electric look different than most of Metra's other customers, according to Metra's own ridership studies: They are lower income, more African-American, more female, and more likely to be renters.

The Coalition for a Modern Metra Electric, which advocates for rapid service on the line and fare integration with CTA and Pace, stepped up to the mic for public comment at the December board meeting. Group representative Linda Thisted said "now is the time" to advocate for changes. The Coalition asked Metra to release more funding details about how much a conversion to rapid transit would cost—they have previously been told $750 million.

But the Metra Electric has seen a steady decrease in ridership in the last decade. Metra even did a marketing study to better understand why Metra Electric riders have left the system. They found that 48 percent of 150 former riders they surveyed had moved or changed jobs. The low ridership numbers make Metra officials wary of increasing service.

Derwinski is skeptical that bringing more frequent service would significantly boost Metra Electric ridership at the current price point.

"If you cost more and more and more to operate and you want it to cost less and less and less to have a fare on that, that equation is the part that we struggle with right now," he said.

A cost-benefit analysis of major capital projects that Metra completed in January estimated that the "Modern Metra Electric" project would cost $900 million in capital costs and that the modern line would recoup only 13 percent of its operating costs with fares each year—though this is based on Metra's own estimates for how many people would use the modern service. (For comparison, the CTA is planning an extension of the Red Line to 130th Street that would cost $2.3 billion—though it has had trouble securing the needed funding from the current federal administration.)

Metra seems caught in a catch-22: providing innovative new service across the system could bring back more riders and generate excitement, which would help make the case for more funding. But it's hard to get to that point without securing significant funding in the first place.

"If you see decreasing ridership, your first instinct isn't always to add more trains," said Wennink of the Metropolitan Planning Council. "This is the challenge we have in our region to continue to increase collaboration and creativity in terms of solving some of these problems. If we want climate change interventions, if we want more equitable transportation, we want a healthy population, we want increased traffic safety, all of these problems can be addressed by transportation. We need to commit to this. We need the political will."  v

This report was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.

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