Transit is crucial for economic recovery from the COVID pandemic, which has posed severe financial challenges for public transportation in the Chicago region and across the U.S. This page describes our region's response in 2020-21 to the COVID-19 pandemic's effects on transit. Please visit the websites of CTA, Metra, and Pace for current information about their services. Scroll down this page for adjustments to RTA Reduced Fare and Ride Free Programs for seniors and persons with disabilities.
- During the pandemic, the RTA has published twice-monthly COVID Update emails, which have now become the Regional Transit Update (please subscribe).
- The RTA created a COVID Transit Dashboard to track statistics about the pandemic's effects on ridership, revenue, and other factors.
- The RTA Board meetings held monthly in 2020-21 featured discussion of the COVID response activities described on this page.
Significant media coverage included RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden on WBEZ (4-29-21), the results from a region-wide ridership survey (4-15-21, with RTA press release, blog post, and coverage by WTTW, the Chicago Tribune, Crain's, and Streetsblog Chicago), and WTTW Chicago Tonight (8-6-20) with RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden, CTA President Dorval R. Carter Jr., Metra CEO/Executive Director Jim Derwinski, and Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue.
Three-Step COVID Recovery Strategy
During the pandemic, operations of CTA, Metra, and Pace (referred to as the three Service Boards) were able to continue due to funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that passed in March 2020 and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) that passed in December 2020. To lead the regional transit system through the COVID pandemic, the RTA and Service Boards carried out a three-step recovery strategy:
Below, in reverse chronology, are details of the three steps.
Step 3: Engage in strategic recovery planning (May 2021 and beyond)
Step 3 began in May 2021, taking a long-term, strategic planning approach that looks out to 2023 and beyond. It will result in a new regional plan — replacing the Invest in Transit plan adopted in 2018 — to reflect new and anticipated circumstances resulting from the COVID pandemic and its ongoing ramifications for transit and the economy.
In May 2021, as vaccination rates led to increased mobility for many residents, the RTA and Service Boards launched a campaign reminding riders to "Wear Masks, Ride Responsibly." This was especially important because, while the CDC loosened guidance for many public locations, it still maintained the mask requirement for all U.S. public transportation. These vibrant reminders to keep masking in English, Spanish, and Polish appeared in bus and train station signage and in the Chicago Sun Times, Daily Herald, Reflejos, Polish Daily News, Southside Weekly, Hyde Park Herald, Lake County Journal, and Suburban Life. To help other organizations and individuals spread the word, the RTA has created a toolkit, with downloadable artwork sized for newsletters and social media.
Step 2: Execute the 2021 budget (January-June 2021)
Step 2 defined an effective, transparent, and accountable process for allocating $486.2 million that the region would receive from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), the second federal relief package that passed in December 2020.
On February 18, 2021, the RTA Board approved release of a draft process for sustaining critical transit during the pandemic. While the projected operating shortfall was averted thanks to $486.2 million from CRRSAA and $106.9 million from better-than-forecasted sales tax revenues, this process was invaluable for ensuring that transit during the pandemic continues to serve those who need it most.
In a presentation and materials for the RTA Board meeting on March 18, staff responded to public comments on that draft report and methodology for allocating federal COVID relief dollars. The RTA Board then voted to allocate CRRSAA funds and approve a budget amendment to allow the Service Boards to access these funds.
See a staff memo describing these allocations and the Sustaining Critical Transit in 2021 report, with an appendix of public comments received from February 18 to March 5, 2021. The report defines transit Critical Need Areas (CNAs) and relates them to existing service to inform the RTA’s funding decisions in 2021. Also, see an interactive RTA Story Map that offers insights into how CNAs were identified.
Based on that analysis, on March 18, 2021, the RTA Board approved CRRSAA allocations as follows. Note that PTF is the state Public Transportation Fund, and RETT is the Real Estate Transfer Tax.
Step 1: Adopt a 2021 budget (October-December 2020)
Passed in March 2020, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $25 billion for public transit nationwide, including more than $1.4 billion to the RTA region for reimbursement of operating costs to maintain service and lost revenue due to coronavirus. At that time the CARES Act funding was the only known source of supplemental operating funds for transit in the face of COVID's potential long-term effects on ridership and revenue. As a result, the region’s transit funding allocations were based on anticipated revenue shortages of the projected 2020 regional budget that had been agreed to by the RTA and the Service Boards based on ridership and public funding shortfalls. The region’s CARES Act funds were allocated as follows:
In fall 2020, the RTA coordinated with the three Service Boards to conduct COVID recovery scenario planning (which would be the basis of further analysis in Step 2) and a PDF guide for returning safely to transit in the Chicago region.
Step 1 culminated on December 17, 2020, when the RTA Board adopted the 2021 regional transit operating budget and five-year capital program. As described in an RTA press release, 2021 operations would rely in part on passage of a second federal COVID relief package, without which the regional transit system would face a potential shortfall of more than $500 million.
RTA Service Changes
Starting early in the pandemic, all RTA customer service offices were closed. Updates on RTA-managed ridership programs can be found below.
Reduced Fare and Ride Free Programs
- For customers who have a Reduced Fare or Ride Free permit that has expired or will expire during the pandemic, the RTA will be extending a one-time courtesy of automatically renewing eligibility so these customers can continue access reduced fares without needing to take action to renew. A new permit will come in the mail prior to the expiration of the current permit.
- Customers who are applying for a Reduced Fare or Ride Free Permit for the first time can download a Reduced Fare and/or Ride Free application online.
- Call 312-913-3110 for assistance or other questions.
RTA Travel Training Program
- The RTA is temporarily canceling all scheduled Travel Training sessions. If you are interested in Travel Training when the program resumes, or have questions about the program, please call 312-663-HELP (4357) to be placed on the Travel Training waitlist.
ADA Paratransit Certification Program
- The RTA’s South and Northwest Chicago Mobility Assessment Centers are currently closed and will not be performing interviews and assessments for ADA Paratransit Certification until further notice.
- For all customers whose ADA paratransit certification has expired or will expire during the pandemic, the RTA is extending a one-time courtesy six-month extension of eligibility.
- Call 312-663-HELP (4357) to apply for ADA paratransit eligibility for the first time or for additional questions.