Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #1: Kill Metra by Natasha Julius

[ I stumbled across a four part series on improving public transit in Chicago by Natasha Julius over at the Beachwood Reporter. Today and the next few weeks I’ll be reposting here. Enjoy! – Aaron. ]

There are two Metras: the commuter rail system that serves millions of people in the Chicagoland area, and the obtuse, intensely political, hopelessly anachronistic corporate behemoth that serves the interests of a few well-connected individuals. In order for the former to thrive, the latter must be destroyed.

The scandal that consumed much of the Metra board this summer was nothing new. It was the latest sleight of hand in nearly 40 years of Regional Transportation Authority hustles. Long before Metra leapt fully formed from the RTA’s head, that agency had figured out how to misdirect its mark. Distract them with partisan wrangling, mollify them with cosmetic upgrades, confuse them with layers of unnecessary complexity, and threaten them with dire consequences if they don’t fork over more cash. If you browse coverage of the RTA in the early years, you’ll find depressingly familiar headlines: doomsday scenarios; threats of Draconian service cuts; revelations of mismanagement; even suggestions of a looming pension crisis. Meanwhile, the actual service provided to commuters changed surprisingly little.

When the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad collapsed in 1980, the RTA faced the real prospect of substantive action. Instead, it spun off two new operational agencies, thereby divesting itself from the very services it was conceived to coordinate. Pace, the suburban bus service, has fostered a cooperative relationship with the CTA and, by extension, the city of Chicago. Metra hasn’t. Instead, Metra views Chicagoland politics as a zero-sum game, in which anything benefiting the Democratic city necessarily screws over the Republican suburbs. Metra is a white knight, the last line of defense between collar-county dollars and the rapacious maw of an insatiable city.

This view contrasts with a reality in which Metra’s corporate board has mushroomed from seven to 11 members, each representing a smaller and more stridently delineated set of special interests. Its directors are chosen by the county boards, possibly the most crony-riddled entities in a crony-riddled region. In constructing its crusading mythos, Metra has transformed itself from a functional service provider into a potent and perennial symbol of public corruption. And still the iconic double-decker trains wait at the same grade crossings that delayed their steam-powered ancestors. Still jauntily-clad conductors attack paper tickets with novelty hole-punches.

This matters because, as much as Metra would like you to ignore this fact, it is a vital part of Chicago’s transit mix. Large swaths of the city, particularly on the Far South Side, were ceded in the 19th century to the long haul railroads that eventually became Metra. Why? Because the small-time robber barons who built Chicago’s elevated rail system hadn’t speculated on land in those areas. That the public rail service provided to certain communities in 2013 – not to mention the price paid for that service – is still determined largely by the decisions a handful of opportunists made shortly after the Civil War illustrates perfectly how little tangible good Metra and the RTA have managed to achieve.

There is one key difference between the rail lines operated by Metra and those run by the CTA. The CTA owns and controls its infrastructure; Metra, by and large, does not. This single fact justifies the existence of a separate agency; everything else is a lie. To refocus Metra’s leadership on the long-term goal of supporting a vibrant, truly intermodal public transit system, the following changes must be made:

1. Modernize the fare collection system. Whatever you can say about the disastrous rollout of Ventra, at least it doesn’t involve scrapbooking tools. Metra’s Depression-era ticketing system isn’t just asinine; it impedes the ability to assess performance. Metra can’t offer anything close to the detail and accuracy of ridership information CTA and Pace can. Without a detailed understanding of who is boarding where and what happens when they leave, Metra is ill-suited to respond to changes in ridership patterns.

2. Determine a reasonable transfer fee. Once Metra has been dragged into the 21st century, we might be able to stop charging people two full fares to travel by Metra and CTA/Pace. Metra currently offers its monthly riders the ability to purchase a magnetic stripe card for $55 that is usable for ” . . . unlimited connecting travel on CTA and Pace buses. CTA usage is restricted to weekday peak travel hours.” So, in other words, limited unlimited transfers.

Based on the assumption that a monthly traveler transfers twice a day, five days a week, that means Metra thinks a fair transfer fee is around $1.40. Pace allows transfers to local, non-premium routes for $0.25. CTA allows two transfers in two hours for the same. If Metra is smart, it’ll follow suit.

3. Overhaul Metra’s in-city fare structure. Metra’s zoned fare system supposedly is based on the distance traveled. CTA riders pay a flat fee. This means that potential Metra riders in outlying parts of the city pay a premium to travel to downtown. The amount of that premium depends on where you live and which branch you ride. If you take the Metra Electric South Chicago branch from 87th Street (Zone B) to Millennium Station, it’ll set you back $3. If you take the Metra Electric main branch from 87th Street (Zone C) to Millennium Station, it’ll cost you $4.25. Now consider the CTA’s Red Line has a station at 87th (under re-construction at the time of this writing, but scheduled to re-open later this month) offers an almost identical service for $2.25.

In the above comparison, the additional fees can be overcome with moderate inconvenience by a short bus ride. That’s not the case for people living south of 95th. Those commuters face a significant inconvenience to transfer to a less costly CTA line, and the surcharge to use Metra only increases as you move further from the city center. Even as you read this, the CTA is planning a costly extension of the Red Line to 130th, running agonizingly close to the Metra Electric line. Before investing a lot of money in a new service, it’s worth asking if the needs of those commuters can be met through a more rational and fair fee structure on the existing line.


View Proposed Red Line Extension in a larger map

Incidentally, the revision of Metra’s in-city fare structure could benefit CTA riders as well. In the above comparison, the fares given were for single one-way tickets. If you buy a monthly pass on Metra’s Zone B, you actually make out slightly better than the CTA’s monthly pass (assuming no transfers). Maybe this would give CTA leaders a reason to scale back the punitive multi-day pass price increases instituted at the start of this year.

4. Decide on an operational strategy. As noted above, Metra controls relatively little of the traction over which it operates. The three lines that Metra owns (the Rock Island, the Metra Electric, and the Milwaukee District North and West) were acquired out of necessity rather than as part of a coordinated strategy. The remaining lines are leased from larger rail conglomerates in complicated purchase-of-service agreements. Per Metra, not even the Milwaukee District lines are completely free and clear. The dispatching duties for those lines are still handled by Canadian Pacific. This lack of control limits the kind of service Metra can provide. Service adjustments like additional runs and longer trains are much more cumbersome when they have to be negotiated with other parties.

It’s not likely Metra will be able to acquire all of its lines. Routes like the Union Pacific North are profitable endeavors for their parent corporations. However, wherever possible Metra should work to create more freedom to address service needs quickly. At the very least, Metra should work with traction owners to reduce the number of grade crossings that pit commuter trains against freight. Metra’s timeliness is a constant issue simply because trains have to queue on a semi-regular basis.

5. Consider a limited number of new stations. It’s impractical to think that Metra will ever function as a local service. This would impose an undue burden on suburban passengers. However, Chicago represents the largest customer block in Metra’s operating region. Some of the areas currently traversed by Metra lines are completely cut off from CTA rail operations. The strategic addition of a few stations could bring reliable rapid transit access to neglected communities, creating new populations of Metra riders in the process. With careful planning, these stations also could boost intermodal transfers, strengthening the alternative transportation system overall.

The operational work of Metra has tremendous potential to serve the Chicagoland area. Sadly, Metra is administrated by a carefully curated collection of political animals trained to avoid the agency’s most basic needs. Any solution that fails to destroy the status quo will never truly benefit the public. It will be another artful con, another misdirection, and we’ll be reading the same pathetic headlines in another 10 years.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 14, 2013.

10 Comments
Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

10 Responses to “Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #1: Kill Metra by Natasha Julius”

  1. Sandy says:

    Ex-Chicagoan speaking here. I’m not sure that killing Metra as a corporate entity is the right, or a feasible, move (though it might be the only thing capable of defeating the entrenched corruption in the agency). I think I’m a little more optimistic than the author, however, about the possibilities for using Metra to improve intra-Chicago travel. Though two of Metra’s most heavily trafficked lines (UP-W and BSNF) are shared with incredibly busy freight corridors, the system also features several lines (UP-N and NW, Electric, Rock Island)which see little to no freight interference. Electrifying those lines out to an inner-suburban terminus (with the obvious exception of the already-done Electric), connecting them to run through downtown, and turning them into an S-Bahn style service, with a connecting loop line on the path of the Mid-City Transitway, would be incredibly expensive, but would instantly transform mobility in Chicago. Parts of such a plan have been proposed here and there (see the Gold Line proposals and http://www.midwesthsr.org/crossrail-chicago), but a comprehensive plan is attainable in the long term, though ambitious. The major problem with getting across Chicago is that the city is so damn big, and it is gradually transforming from Loop-centric to multipolar; you’re not gonna solve the mobility challenges that arise from that with BRT (as positive a development as a BRT network would be).

  2. urbanleftbehind says:

    I think the fares should be coordinated, but I go in the opposite direction somewhat. IN lieu of a true, point-to-point distance based fare, I feel that the CTA should incorporate the A, B, and C fare of Metra on its system as follows.

    Zone A: CTA Buses that do not traverse a defined “Central Business District”, e.g. 79th St, Pulaski, Lawrence, South Michigan, South Halsted.

    Zone B: Every-Stop CTA routes that do touch or traverse the CBD – King Drive, Archer, Madison St, Chicago Ave, Halsted.

    Zone C: CTA Rapid Transit Lines, Express Buses, BRTs when they come online.

    I would charge transfers on a smaller per-ride rate (like the old .25) across the system.

    One could also argue that the Metra zone fare is a form of riff-raff proofing (Metra has actual conductors), and some patrons may have a tolerance of the differential in price for this reason.

  3. While this article doesn’t really address it, many legacy commuter railroads are looking at how to become more useful for travel within the core dense parts of the city. In many cases these railroads already provide powerful links between dense centers, but lack the frequency (and sometimes the bidirectionality) to function in an urban context. This usually requires infill stations, complete double-tracking within the core city, and an effort to reduce the number of employees per train. Usually the last of these is the hardest.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    The Crossrail Chicago proposal seems… underwhelming. Compare it to the Crossrail map shown for London. London’s building a bunch of new stations underground, and the line is expected to have many stations serving city neighborhoods. Crossrail Chicago is planned to express from O’Hare to Union Station, and at least according to the map make just one Hyde Park stop instead of the local Metra Electric stops. Commuter lines with very wide urban stop spacing aren’t really useful to people living in the cities.

  5. calwatch says:

    One simple thing that could expand utility greatly, especially during middays, nights, and weekends, is allowing CTA passholders to use Metra within city limits outside of peak trains. The Metra Electric at night is pretty empty despite servicing key destinations. If the freight railroads balk, implement this on Metra-operated lines.

  6. Robert Munson says:

    Aaron–
    Thanks for running this series.
    This first piece on METRA offers a correct core conclusion: a service-oriented METRA cannot succeed as long as cronyism reigns.
    Unfortunately, the article’s many good ideas and those in the Comments will rarely be implemented under the current structure.

    Two key questions prevent service improvement:
    1) How do we change that crony-laden structure?
    2) How are the improvements paid for?
    Both obstacles have the same solution: more democracy.
    A regionally elected board administers tax dollars, existing and new, to existing agencies or new ones or PPPs.
    As I’ve proven in this Comment and my postings, it is hard to convey simply this major restructuring. But it must be done and certainly can be: “no taxation without representation” is a core value.

  7. RJ says:

    I think Sandy’s proposal is interesting, but impractical in Chicago. The European S-Bahn systems are much more suited for their respective locations, since most Europeans are much more likely to use transit to commute from the suburbs, which makes for high ridership per capita. The S-Bahn systems are also much smaller than Metra. In Europe, especially the German speaking world, most people are either close to the city, or on a dairy farm. That causes the suburban area to be smaller. The Munich S-Bahn network, for example, doesn’t go much farther out than the ‘L.’
    I think they certainly need to modernize their fare collection system. Half the time, I don’t even pay to go downtown. They also need to play nice with the fact that there are other forms of transportation in the area. You can’t take Metra to either of the airports, except O’Hare if you happen to be on the Metra UP-NW line, and want to deal with transferring to the Blue Line ‘L’ at Jefferson Park. You can only transfer to Amtrak if your line ends at Union Station. And the lines that do only end there because that happens to be the end of the railroad. And don’t even try to transfer to another Metra line.
    So really, while a total reform to an S-Bahn style rail system would be nice, there’s no way that’s getting past council.

  8. myb6 says:

    On Cross-rail Chicago:
    I think there are much lower fruit to pick for Metra than electrification and thru-running, and we really shouldn’t push on those issues until we see how the low fruit pan out. I’m particularly sceptical on thru-running: Union Station’s layout means every thru-run platform costs you 2 stub-ends, not 1, and people can just transfer if you improve the frequency (especially for peak commuters).

    Better fare system, smaller but more frequent trains, TOD instead of parking lots, better suburban feeders, Loop BRT, urban stations that aren’t ruin pr0n, and bike/pedestrian connectivity would have little marginal cost but potentially major impact.

  9. david vartanoff says:

    Late to the party, but this ex Chicagoan is pleased to see someone raising some of these issues. Where to start? Demand all Metra trains withing CTA service area accept CTA fare instruments w/o any surcharge–perhaps the only value of Ventra is the mandate for cross agency functionality; now we need to add fare compatibility. Next, immediate steps to implement the Gray Line including the Hegewisch service on the South Shore. That makes the Red Line extension moot, and could be up and running in a year or two. (There is already precedent for a Millennium Park to Hegewisch service from the South Shore Line equipment crisis 30+ years ago when diesel pulled RTA bi levels were used as the route was all within Illinois)
    in re item 5, Actually many of these routes had more local stops decades ago, and certainly in the Electric case travel between neighborhoods w/o going to the Loop was feasible–I commuted to Hyde Park from South Shore as had my mother before me. The key is much closer headways (the Electric ran every 20 minutes midday in the early 1950s)

  10. DD says:

    My point is completely opposite. The less stops in the city the better for Metra. It only delays the trains and Chicago ridership is negligible at places where the train stops. Go one day and visit Gladstone Park “station” and count folks boarding.

    For those asking for Ventra to be implemented on Metra I’d like to ask if you have read Chicago Tribune articles what a RICO-case-in-waiting it is! I am mortified to hear that something selected in Chicago City Council will be forced upon suburbs. And seriously Ventra is supposed to be “modern” system? Oh please get the cell phone issued ticket system and I will say it’s modern. Now that Metra OUGHT TO DO to show Chicago how to get to 21st century. Quite frankly I’m puzzled and keep asking – who got greased to allow Ventra at all!? I’m pretty sure CTA could have managed a roll out of an upgraded system sooner or later. This Ventra deal reeks like another Parking Deal…

    Counting riders is some kind of dire need for Metra? Not by a long shot. It’s simple math: they know how many tickets they sell and how much it costs to operate. I bet I can give manual clickers to all conductors and ask monthly head count. It will be far cheaper. CTA is a gigantic money pit and so it Metra. But if someone would like to dismantle it to prove a point I say just wait until Metra goes on strike. Let’s see where Chicagoans will be crying and begging for it to be over.

    Metra works due to dedication of the people running it – and I mean “running” as in putting true labor into operations. The Board of Directors is just as political as Chicago’s City Council at least Metra’s Board members have guts to expose corruption as opposed to Chicago’s City Council…

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