Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chicago Commuter Rail: Performance Doesn’t Promise Funding

“The way to really fly” is the marketing slogan used by Metra, Chicago’s public commuter rail provider, to attract riders. Aside from simply implying that Metra is a fast and efficient mode of public transportation, the motto also reflects its soaring success as a service provider. “Some call Metra the best regional railroad in the U.S.[1] Metra has shown that the public sector is capable of providing cost efficient service that provides excellent consumer outcomes. Unfortunately, the budget debates now taking place in Congress threaten to compromise the continued success of the Metra and other mass transit services throughout the country that need federal aid for their capital budgets. It is a perfect example of how a slash and burn approach to the budget can unnecessarily jeopardize well performing and essential public services.

As gas prices begin to soar, the consensus is that fuel prices will remain high for the long-term. If transportation alternatives aren’t made available, fuel related cost pressures will have adverse affects on consumers and the economy. Therefore, the need for maintaining and expanding public transit should be a national priority… but it’s not! Metra has proposed addressing the transportation needs and congestion concerns of suburban commuters by proposing a “first-of-its-kind” suburban commuter rail line. Unfortunately, state and federal funding for this project has completely dried up.

Metra has historically performed better than its peers on virtually every significant measure of cost effectiveness and efficiency, as confirmed in an Illinois Auditor General analysis.[2] When compared with other commuter rail services, expenditures for Metra are quite low. Metra’s relatively low expenditures per passenger mile are maintained while also having comparatively low fares (comparable systems in other US cities charge 80% or more for fares) and a relatively high farebox recovery ratio of 55%.[3] The average commuter rail farebox recovery ratio is 43% for all North American commuter rail systems (including Canada). Farebox recovery ratios are an important measure of financial performance because they indicate how much of a government subsidy is needed. A high farebox recovery ratio indicates less of a need for government subsidies.

Metra’s high level of performance should translate into state and federal support in the form of increased funding, but it has not. In fact, the Illinois Legislature is considering a bill that would exempt businesses from paying a local sales tax that supports Metra and other Chicago area public transit services, depriving it of critical funding it needs for operations. Metra and other Chicago area public transit services have already cut their budgets and reduced services to account for lost sales tax revenue during the recession. Now that the economy appears to be recovering and gas prices are climbing, riders are sure to increase their use of public transit. But instead of providing increased funding, governments aren’t providing support and, in the case of the Illinois Legislature, are effectively seeking to reduce the remaining revenue sources.

[1] Railway Age Feb2010, Vol. 211 Issue 2, p23-24

[2] Regional Transportation Agency, Metra. (2011). 2011 proposed program and budget book Retrieved from, p1-63

[3] Regional Transportation Agency, Metra. (2011). 2011 proposed program and budget book Retrieved from, p1-63

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