Invest in Transit: A Look Back at 2018

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We Have a Plan: the RTA spreads the word about regional transit funding needs

Dear transit riders,

On behalf of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) staff and Board of Directors, I want to take a moment to celebrate the RTA’s accomplishments in 2018 and highlight our plans for 2019 and beyond. Our efforts collaborating with CTA, Metra, and Pace (the Transit Agencies) this year have benefited riders who rely on our robust system to get to and from work, school, run errands, and experience what this great region has to offer. It’s also important to note that residents benefit even if they don’t ride our system, as our system attracts jobs and employers and keeps cars off of our already clogged roadways. Still, as a daily transit rider into and around Chicago nearly every day, I know first-hand the challenges riders sometimes face in their daily commutes.

It’s no secret that the lack of funding for public transportation is at the forefront of our issues. State budget actions for fiscal years 2017 through 2019 reduced operating funding for public transportation by $152 million. Even with these financial challenges, the RTA and Transit Agencies worked together this year to produce a fiscally responsible and balanced regional transit budget and capital program with a focus on benefiting our region’s riders.

How do we get through tough economic obstacles like State cuts? It’s not easy. The Transit Agencies utilize efficiencies where appropriate and trim budgets where we can. Neither CTA, Metra nor Pace plan fare increases in 2019, but Pace is reducing or eliminating twelve underutilized routes. This year more than any other in recent memory, regional transit leaders are being candid about the challenges we face and what is needed to address them.  

The State hasn’t passed a capital bill since 2009. We’re fortunate that the RTA’s AA credit rating is among the best in the public sector, making possible for us provide limited long term financing to support a portion of the Transit Agencies’ capital budgets. This benefits riders every day. The RTA issued $150 million of bonds in 2018 and plans to issue $158 million of additional bonds in 2020, consistent with utilizing the RTA’s full bonding capacity to provide funding for the Transit Agencies. Unfortunately as in the years past, the RTA had to use our short term borrowing authority in 2018 to cover late State payments for Transit Agency operations. The State now owes RTA more than $420 million dollars in repayment for that financing at an annual cost us of about $6.4 million; this is essentially another funding cut as scarce dollars are spent on paying down debt instead of investing in our system. 

Even with these funding obstacles, the Transit Agencies are still delivering excellent service with limited resources. As always thank you for riding with us, and I hope you continue to ride in 2019. 

2018 was a great year for our region, let’s take a look at some highlights:

The RTA’s Roadmap for Investment: 2018-2023 Regional Transit Strategic Plan
This year the RTA and Transit Agencies started off by approving Invest in Transit, the 2018-2023 Regional Transit Strategic Plan. This new regional plan sets a bold, yet practical, vision for “public transit as the core of the region’s robust transportation mobility network.” Our intention is that this plan lays out the what, where and why investment is needed for transit in the region. A companion document, Invest in Transit: Priority Projects, describes specific, tangible capital priorities for CTA, Metra, and Pace. A portion of the funding required to advance some of these projects is programmed in the current Transit Agency capital programs, yet all are still underfunded or un-funded, with a regional need totaling $30 billion over the next ten years.

The RTA also created a video inspired by our Regional Strategic Plan in order to share this important message about transit funding with a broader audience and we were recognized by MarCom for the video and the print version of Invest in Transit.

The RTA’s Work in Your Community
2018 was a milestone year as the RTA celebrated the 20th anniversary of our Community Planning program. Since 1998, we have been working with local partners to plan for transit-oriented development (TOD) around Northeastern Illinois by offering technical assistance through this program. Community Planning helps communities transform underutilized areas around transit assets such as train stations and bus stops into bustling downtowns and neighborhoods that feel more urban, lively and pedestrian friendly. Throughout the history of the program the RTA has invested over $20 million in nearly 200 projects by partnering with the transit service providers, six county governments, several councils of mayors, and roughly half of all local governments that have transit service in the Northeastern Illinois region. In 2018, we worked with suburban communities as well as the City of Chicago to help them leverage their transit assets, attract more development and ultimately, make it more appealing for residents to ride transit.

Serving Riders with Disabilities
This year the RTA processed about 18,000 ADA paratransit applications and renewals with approximately 60,000 regional riders eligible for the program. The RTA’s Travel Training program also continues to provide a resource to teach people with disabilities how to independently use CTA, Metra and Pace. Our travel trainers worked with approximately 130 individuals to help them gain independence on public transit this year. In the digital age, a great way to communicate our services is through video! So the RTA’s Mobility Management team created a video series that provides many accessible travel tips.

Introducing an Innovative Microtransit-Transit Partnership to the Region
The RTA has been working for several years to introduce innovative solutions to the transit ecosystem that allow more people to consider public transportation as a viable option for their commutes. This year, the RTA joined the Greater Oak Brook Chamber of Commerce in launching a pilot project with Chariot. The pilot is the first of its type in the region and uses Chariot vehicles to connect commuters from the Metra station in Elmhurst to ten commercial properties along and near Commerce Drive in Oak Brook. The pilot is funded by private companies with seed funding from the RTA and provides a model for other suburban communities looking for ways to expand the reach of their Metra Stations and Pace stops to nearby job centers. 

Making it Easier to Find Your Way
This year, the RTA made it a little easier for riders to find their way around transfer stations by installing over 130 signs in seven locations throughout the region. Customers will see new signs at the Museum Campus, Harvey, Lisle, Montrose-Mayfair, Elgin, Lake Cook Road, and Naperville. The signs help improve physical coordination among transit services in locations where more than one agency is operating and there isn’t a direct line of sight between services. We know that a little directional guidance goes a long way and people were using the signs before the construction teams were even finished.

Preparing Transit Agencies for the Future
The RTA continues to work with the Transit Agencies to prepare for a resilient future. This year, we completed a Bus Route Flooding Study with CTA and Pace that is helping them better anticipate and work around the flooding events that are becoming more frequent and extensive. The results of the study are being used to discuss with the City of Chicago and other municipalities the impact of viaduct flooding on transit commuters. We also completed a Wayside Energy Storage Study with Metra that looked at the feasibility of installing battery storage near the Metra Electric District line to capture energy released during braking. Similar to the project we carried out with CTA in 2017, the study found that the equipment would have a long payback period and isn’t cost-effective in this particular location today. That said, the study provided worthwhile information and ideas for what could be possible in the future.

Measuring How We Compare to Other Transit Agencies
The RTA is proud to produce several reports each year that measure and compare our regional system's performance. The RTA region performed particularly well, with the lowest operating cost per passenger mile (for the sixth consecutive year!) We also ranked second for annual ridership for the first time since regional reporting began, surpassing Los Angeles. On the less positive side, Chicago’s ranking for capital expenditures per-passenger dropped to sixth place. Chicago transit expends roughly 35% of what New York spends per resident for capital projects. It’s important that we make the right investments to not only maintain our excellent standing among our peers but also bring our region’s public transportation into the future.

Promoting Transit Ridership
Whether we’re trying to remind riders of the benefits of transit or highlighting transit investment during National Infrastructure Week, the RTA is always looking for ways to advocate for stable and sufficient investment in our transit system. We appreciate other how regional leaders support our work, further showing transit’s importance to the region and state. 

The RTA took part in the 13th annual “Dump the Pump” initiative as well as Car Free Day to encourage first time and occasional riders to leave their cars at home by taking public transportation. Donning our orange shirts during the morning rush hour, we handed out, “I Dumped the Pump” stickers, coffee, and mini-donuts to thank riders for choosing public transportation.

Keeping in Touch
We are pleased to report that our award-winning Ride On. blog continues to be a great source for RTA news, providing a first person perspective on transit in the region, and allowing riders to learn more about the RTA’s role and impact on transit in the region. The blog, along with the RTA’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, are easy ways to keep up with us and we hope you do. Both Executive Director Leanne Redden and I have our own Twitter accounts as well.

The Board and I are extremely proud of the work the RTA staff does day in and day out and, as we look ahead to 2019, we look forward to a new year of collaboration and service.

Kirk Dillard, Chairman
Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois (RTA)