In March, Chicagoland’s Pace Suburban Bus’s board of directors appointed Melinda J. Metzger as the agency’s new executive director. Metzger, who had led the agency in an interim capacity since December 2021, previously served in top roles as Pace’s head of operations. Her appointment follows a trailblazing career in transit that has spanned four decades.
METRO recently spoke to Metzger about her goals as executive director, how COVID is impacting the way Pace is planning its mobility programs, what the agency is doing to fill its operator and maintenance positions, and much more.
Can you discuss how it feels to take over the top spot at Pace, as well as what some of your short- and long-term goals as an executive director are?
I’ve been in the transit business for over 40 years now, which is hard to believe. It is a real honor to lead this organization, especially during this transition period for our agency and the industry as a whole. When I started out, there was no funding for transit, there was no funding for the buses, there was no funding for our buildings, and we really had to rebuild the system. Now, we’re at a point where there is money available to do some of the things that we should have been doing all along. We are currently seeing a new norm with people working from home. They are still doing the typical five-day work week, but they aren’t necessarily traveling to work during the typical hours they did pre-pandemic. And it’s great to take charge of Pace during a time of innovation and growth. But we’re going to have to be more innovative to get people to ride transportation.
Coming on board here, the first initiative, and one of the reasons why I’m very excited to be here, is to bring our agency into the era of zero emissions. Earlier this year, we leased a bus from GILLIG to conduct operational testing. Our board of directors recently approved the purchase of that bus, as well as 20 Proterra buses, which should arrive in 2023, putting us ahead of schedule at a time when demand is outweighing supply. Our goal is by 2040 to be fully zero emissions. We do not have any diesel buses in our capital program other than our over the road coaches, which we’re also looking at alternatives for. This is an exciting initiative, and to be ahead of the curve and get 20 buses on order is fantastic.
With COVID-19 impacting services, what have you implemented to help deliver more robust mobility?
That’s our second initiative, optimizing our system. We’re really focused on new and innovative services and technology. We have our Bus on Shoulder program, which has been successful, and the Pulse bus rapid transit system that we are expanding into other parts of the region. We are uniquely positioned because we also have such a large vanpool program that allows us to do some things differently than other big transit agencies. That vanpool program took a big hit when people stopped going into work every day, so we’ve adjusted the fare structure for people who are working at the office part time so commuters can continue to utilize the service. We also started something new that I’m excited about, our VanGo program. Under this new program, qualified riders can call the night before to reserve a vehicle, which they can then pick up at a train station to complete their ride to work. After reserving a vehicle, we give them a code that will unlock the car door and provide them access to a lockbox with the key inside the vehicle. They then can take that vehicle from the train station to their work location, which is important for us because it addresses first mile, last mile issues that most transit agencies face. We’re looking forward to seeing how this program works, and how we can expand it in the future.
The other initiative we’re working on is technology advancements that allow our customers to better plan and monitor their trips. We already have bus tracker technology available for our fixed-route system, but we’re working to integrate our on demand and ADA services through a MaaS (mobility as a service) platform so passengers can access travel plans when using a mix of services. We’re doing a lot of technology upgrades to provide better access to information, so our riders have a more seamless experience when riding our service.
Has COVID-19 impacted the way you think about transportation planning moving forward?
COVID has really affected everything that we do. It goes back to why it’s exciting to take the helm at Pace during this time, because it’s a whole new world. We’re thinking of new ways to operate and new ways to help our riders who are not everyday passengers anymore. It leads back to investing in our infrastructure. We must have modern facilities and vehicles for people to use. We recently had a ribbon cutting with the Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Congressman Foster, and Governor Pritzker. That’s the first time we had a congressperson, Secretary of Transportation, and a governor on one of our properties. It was a thrilling event, not just because we had those dignitaries there, but because the event was celebrating the first modern transit terminal in Joliet through a partnership with the City — we provided funding, and they built the facility for us. Previously, our passengers boarded in multiple locations with little protection from the elements. We now have them in a very consolidated area where they can just cross the perimeter and board their bus. There is also a building where people can go in, sit down, and wait for their vehicle with real-time information available to them so they know when their bus will arrive. That’s just an example of how we’re expanding our infrastructure to make it easier for our passengers to use our system.
Where are you at with ridership and how is the recovery going?
Our agency is at about 65 percent of our normal weekday ridership, which is fairly good. We dropped down to the 20 to 30 percent range when COVID hit and have recovered quickly. COVID has shown us how important Pace is to our riders. During the pandemic, we were carrying the people who had to go to work in hospitals and at grocery stores — people who were essential workers were riding our buses all along. And, it proved that we are a necessary part of the whole region’s transportation system.
What’s ridership look like now? You touched a bit on how peak times and days are changing a bit.
It’s interesting because we are getting a little bit of everything. What we’re finding is Mondays and Fridays are lighter — I think people are working from home Mondays and Fridays, or at least spreading it out a bit more where it’s not necessarily the typical nine to five. There is a much bigger spread in the times that people are riding, which is the kind of thing we are continuing to look at as we determine what types of service make the most sense.
But that’s promising, because it shows that customers may be riding Pace not just for work, right?
Absolutely. It’s very promising for us because if we can get people who are going to the grocery store or going out to concerts and other events. Ultimately, our overall goal is to help the environment by getting people to use public transportation, so we’re excited with what this trend may bring.
Pace recently revamped its fare payment structure; can you please talk about the reasons why?
It was absolutely done to boost ridership. The revamp is also unique because CTA and Pace have been working on a shared pass system since we launched Ventra about a decade ago. Continuing in that spirit, CTA and Pace lowered the price of our weekly and monthly passes to encourage people to come back to public transportation, and we created an affordable Regional Connect Pass, which allows Metra riders to transfer to both Pace and CTA buses. Our big focus right now is to encourage riders to come back to our system. In addition, for the first time this year for Pace, we offered free fares on the first day of school for students and one caretaker to ride CTA, Pace, or Metra. So hopefully, we got them off to the new school year right and gave them an opportunity to use public transit for their commute to school.
Are there other programs in place to boost ridership? Have you increased your marketing outreach, or any of those kinds of things?
We are increasing marketing. Pace serves about 300 communities, so we’re trying to partner with them to get the word out about our services. And, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not just our fixed-route services, but also our vanpool, On Demand, and paratransit services. On any given day, we can have about 2,500 vehicles out on the road, which we also use to advertise public transportation options. If businesses or communities come to us and tell us how they’d like to see our service operate, we will discuss all the different options we have available to better serve them. We are going to continue to do more advertising to try and recruit people back to public transportation, and not necessarily just back, but maybe even get people to use public transit for the first time.
What is Pace doing to increase its driver and overall employee pool?
Like every other transit agency, we have found it difficult to get mechanics and drivers to come through the door. One of the main reasons why is that people don’t necessarily know how to get a CDL permit. Because of that, we have partnered with Olive Harvey College, which is one of the city colleges here in Chicago, and Harper College in Palatine, whereby Pace pays for an individual to go to junior college to get their CDL permit training. If they pass the training and obtain their CDL permit, they funnel right into our system. We hope to expand the program to other colleges in our region as it has proven to be highly successful for us.
We are also working with maintenance technical institutes in the region. We plan to meet with students and, as they graduate, hire them on the spot and bring them directly into our mechanics program. In general, we need to do more to get people interested in transit jobs, period. Transit isn’t a typical nine to five-type job. It’s public service. To make it more appealing to work here, Pace is increasing our benefits and making some other changes to attract more candidates. We hope to make working at Pace, and in transit in general, more enticing, because it’s really a great career.