The Regional Transportation Authority of Northeastern Illinois (RTA) released a draft of “Transit is the Answer,” the 2023 regional transit strategic plan that has been in development for more than a year, according to the agency's news release.
The plan outlines 14 key Areas of Advocacy and Action that were co-created with stakeholders to guide priorities in areas like funding, safety, speed, and reliability. In addition, it identifies a number of actions that the RTA, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace will work together on in 2023 including:
- Pursuing additional funding for transit operations, which is set to hit a funding cliff in 2026 that can’t be solved by raising fares or cutting service.
- Convening a region-wide, cross-sector safety and security summit to facilitate information sharing and explore holistic solutions to the challenges affecting transit.
- Seeking funding to pilot an expanded regional free or reduced fare program available to people experiencing low incomes to make the system more affordable and advance understanding about the barriers that fares present to riders.
- Collaboratively beginning development of a regional transit climate action plan that identifies how transit can support the region’s climate action goals, outlines regional strategies that will encourage more people to ride transit, and charts a course to reduce the footprint of the transit system and move toward zero-emissions for transit operations.
“We see transit as the answer to the economic viability of our region and to addressing many of the most urgent challenges facing us today,” said Kirk Dillard, RTA Board chairman. “Transit is the answer to concerns around equity, economic prosperity, and climate mitigation and investing in transit is an investment in solutions for our region’s future.”
“The RTA releases a strategic plan every five years, but never before has the need been so significant and the opportunity so great,” said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden. “Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic changed public transportation systems across the nation, and we are all working on solutions that rise to the occasion. With ridership still not reaching pre-pandemic levels and federal relief dollars projected to run out at the end of 2025, we knew we needed to build a coalition to create a plan that addresses the needs of riders and maps out new ways to fund our unique system.”
RTA said one of the most important aspects of the plan is pursuing additional funding for transit operations, which is set to hit a cliff in 2026 that can’t be solved by raising fares or cutting service. At the end of 2021, the RTA completed the allocation of $3.4 billion in federal relief funding provided to the region to help offset fare revenue losses from declining ridership due to the pandemic. Remaining federal relief funding is being used to balance the current budget but is projected to last through the third quarter of 2025.
As part of the development of the strategic plan, financial and planning experts from the RTA, CTA, Metra, Pace, and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) worked together as part of a 10-Year Financial Plan technical group to analyze different financial scenarios. The group estimated that beginning in 2026, the system could face an annual budget gap of $730 million assuming current service levels are maintained regionwide.
The group then evaluated 27 revenue options and identified 11 that have the potential to address gaps. Their findings show that there is no simple or singular funding solution; instead, the RTA will engage its partners and stakeholders to pursue a combination of available solutions to close the funding gap and ensure that a sound public transportation system is available in the future.