Transit’s fate tied to trust — and probably federal cash
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.
A few passengers board a Green Line train at the Clinton Street station during a July afternoon, ordinarily a busy time for ridership.