Tran­sit’s fate tied to trust — and prob­a­bly fed­eral cash

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS | NATION/WORLD - DAVID ROEDER droeder@sun­times.com | @Roed­erDavid

Five months into our pan­demic, the end­less-loop, “Ground­hog Day” as­pect of the ex­pe­ri­ence weighs heav­ily on the mind. Mine at least. Maybe yours too.

There’s still just as much un­cer­tainty about key ques­tions as there was in March. When will there be a vac­cine or ef­fec­tive treat­ment are the big ones, of course, but there are oth­ers. How soon be­fore we min­gle with­out a care? Will school rou­tines per­ma­nently change? Can the dec­i­mated ser­vice in­dus­tries re­cover? How will work­places adapt and will the of­fice even be there for some?

Throw in a virus and spasms of loot­ing, and peo­ple start doubt­ing what binds them to city life. One great lure for Chicago hangs in the bal­ance: pub­lic tran­sit. The sys­tems are starved of rid­er­ship rev­enue and sales taxes be­cause of the eco­nomic shut­downs, and we don’t know how soon peo­ple will board a crowded bus or train again. As work re­turns, will they all get into cars and worsen grid­lock?

“No one is head­ing back to the of­fice in droves. Peo­ple are tak­ing a sort of staged, phased ap­proach to this,” said Leanne Red­den, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Re­gional Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity. The agency has been talk­ing to the CTA, Me­tra and Pace, plus busi­ness groups such as the Chicagolan­d Cham­ber of Com­merce, to de­velop cam­paigns to get peo­ple back on pub­lic tran­sit. So far, that’s amounted to lots of signs about clean­li­ness, masks and so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

Jack Lavin, CEO of the cham­ber, said about two-thirds of em­ploy­ers re­port their work­ers de­pend on pub­lic tran­sit. “There are trust is­sues. That word ‘trust’ keeps com­ing up,” Lavin said.

High­way traf­fic has been pick­ing up, but the rid­er­ship statis­tics are still bleak for the tran­sit ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to RTA data. Me­tra, tied to down­town com­muters, is off 90% from last year’s pace, right where it was early in the pan­demic. The CTA has seen an uptick but is still down about 70% on av­er­age with bus and rail fac­tored to­gether. Pace has lately im­proved to about a 50% drop.

Red­den said the pan­demic has cost the ser­vices $900 mil­lion this year, but they’ve been able to share $1.4 bil­lion from the fed­eral CARES Act. The money has al­lowed the CTA to main­tain a reg­u­lar sched­ule for those need­ing to get some­where, at the cost of send­ing empty buses all over the city. Red­den said the CARES money should last into early 2021 for the tran­sit agen­cies, but more fed­eral help will be needed if the pan­demic doesn’t let up.

“2021 will be a tough year. We need tran­sit in the next fed­eral bill,” she said.

Oth­er­wise, the sys­tems have lit­tle choice. “They don’t have a lot of levers to pull, only ser­vice cuts and fare in­creases,” Red­den said.

CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the agency is de­vel­op­ing a “busi­ness tool­kit” that em­ploy­ers can use to per­suade staff to use pub­lic tran­sit again. It will high­light an in­tense clean­ing reg­i­men and use of longer trains and, in some cases, larger, ac­cor­dion-style buses to re­duce crowd­ing. “The busi­ness com­mu­nity has been telling us that, yes, work-from-home will con­tinue. It’s en­tirely pos­si­ble, maybe prob­a­ble, that it will con­tinue into next year,” he said.

But the ap­peal of a pro-tran­sit cam­paign or any drive to get com­muters back to an of­fice de­pends on con­fi­dence. Pa­trick Caruso, CEO of the down­town build­ing man­ager L.J. Sheri­dan & Co., said nearly all em­ploy­ers with re­mote work­ers are telling peo­ple to stay out of the of­fice if they feel un­safe com­ing in, a mes­sage con­nected to both the pan­demic and the loot­ing. “A lot de­pends on whether this thing gets worse. What’s the fall go­ing to look like?” he said.

Like other build­ing man­agers, L.J. Sheri­dan has been ob­ses­sive about clean­ing. But Caruso said peo­ple un­der­stand that might not be enough. “We can’t keep them 100% safe from the virus. I can’t clean enough. I can’t sep­a­rate enough. Am I go­ing to tackle some­body if they get on an el­e­va­tor with three other peo­ple?” he said.

Kevin Pur­cell, pres­i­dent of leas­ing and man­age­ment ser­vices at MB Real Es­tate, is more hope­ful, see­ing a grad­ual re­turn to nor­mal com­mut­ing pat­terns as peo­ple grasp that it’s safe to come back. He also said most em­ploy­ers won’t em­brace work-from-home over the long term, be­liev­ing it detri­men­tal to pro­duc­tiv­ity and team­work.

For tran­sit agen­cies, “it’s go­ing to take some time, and it prob­a­bly takes good news on the vac­cine front to get most peo­ple back,” Pur­cell said.

So it’s a vac­cine or more fed­eral cash. Oth­er­wise, those empty CTA buses are steer­ing toward a fi­nan­cial cliff.

ASH­LEE REZIN GAR­CIA/ SUN-TIMES FILE

A few pas­sen­gers board a Green Line train at the Clin­ton Street sta­tion dur­ing a July af­ter­noon, or­di­nar­ily a busy time for rid­er­ship.

Leanne Red­den

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