Dec. 15—No service cuts and no fare increases planned for Pace Suburban Buses in 2024, but a financial hole threatens the entire public transit system across the Chicago metropolitan area, Thomas Marcucci, DuPage County representative on the Pace Board of Directors, said during a budget presentation Tuesday.
Speaking to the DuPage County Board, Marcucci did not mince words describing the three quarters of a billion dollar pitfall the Chicago metro public transportation system could face in two years when federal assistance lapses.
Suburban operating costs for Pace buses went down about 3% in 2023 due to some jobs, particularly at its corporate offices, getting left unfilled, but mostly because of the lowering price of gas.
"I could brag about how efficient we are but the fact of the matter is fuel went down and that's reflected in these numbers," Marcucci said.
Pace's suburban budget for 2024 will operate at about $292 million, roughly 8% higher than in 2023.
About $60 million of the budget will be funded through federal coronavirus relief, according to Pace.
The transit systems budget problems come from three sources, Marcucci said, decades of chronic underfunding of the system, inflation and plummeting ridership.
At its lowest point during the pandemic daily ridership fell to 41-42% of its average, and despite recent growth Pace is still under 60% of its former ridership numbers.
"People are not back on the bus in the numbers they used to be and the funding has finally caught up with that," Marcucci said. "No one is projecting that downtown is going to get back to 100% any time soon."
Despite what the numbers suggest, county officials say public transportation in the suburbs is in demand, as certain regions in DuPage lack meaningful services.
" District 6 is a wasteland of public transit; we have none up there," DuPage County Board Member Jim Zay said during the presentation. "For 20 plus years we have had nothing that goes west of County Farm Road."
North of Metra's Union Pacific West Line and west of Pace's Route 711, which runs between Wheaton and Addison, is a major gap in the metro's public transportation system, and it is farm from the only one.
"We've got big industrial Brewster Creek, we've got the DuPage Business Center in West Chicago, we've got big places that have employment that I think at some point we should look at," Zay said.
The meeting was not all doom and gloom from Pace however, a minor cost saving measure for the transit system comes, ironically, from offering free rides.
In 2024 Pace will offer free rides to anyone receiving aid through the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"If you are an ADA rider and you have the certification for that ... it's free, not reduced fare, it's free," Marcucci said.
Metra announced a similar reduced fair ridership program for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in 2024.
In 2023 the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees Pace, Metra and the CTA, tracked about 325 million rides this year, a 14% increase over 2022, but the public transit sector isn't seeing enough of a ride increase to deal with the looming fiscal threat.
"We, the region, are asking the state legislature to come up with somewhere in the neighborhood of $740-750 million as soon as two years from now," Marcucci said. "If that doesn't happen, public transportation in the Chicago metropolitan area will be on the verge of collapse."
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