The regional rail system is undergoing a budget crisis—but with the election of J.B. Pritzker as governor, Metra leadership is feeling optimistic.

By Mari Cohen

(Image: Davon Clark/City Bureau)

(Image: Davon Clark/City Bureau)

On November 9, Metra’s board convened to approve the commuter rail agency’s 2019 budget and discuss future plans, in front of a nearly full room of around 50 suited professionals. At a time when Metra’s future is uncertain due to a budget crisis, the meeting provided useful insight into the agency’s plans for the upcoming year and its approach to serving the Chicago region.

Metra currently faces a dire capital funding shortage, which it traces to a decline in government funding over the past several years — the state has not passed a capital funding bill since 2009. Metra’s capital budget pays for improvements to its infrastructure and trains. Now, Metra says, it has a $6.1 million backlog of needed investment in its equipment, and 40 percent of its assets are in “marginal or worn condition,” especially since Metra inherited aging infrastructure at its birth in 1980. In its 2019 budget document, Metra called on its riders to help make the case to the state government that Metra needs a sustained capital funding source; otherwise, it warned, “drastic changes in service levels or other programs may be needed to shrink Metra to a size that its resources can sustain.”

Metra’s board has eleven members. One is appointed by Chicago’s mayor; one is appointed by the Cook County President of the Board; four are appointed by suburban members of the Cook County Board; the remaining five are appointed by board presidents from McHenry, Kane, Lake, Will and DuPage counties. Their career backgrounds vary from former transit professionals to local politicians and business owners. Currently, the board consists of one Black woman, one white woman and nine white men.

The board next convenes on December 12.

1. Metra is preparing to argue for more capital funding from the state.

Board members and Metra staff seemed cautiously optimistic about the future now that there will soon be a new regime in Springfield, with Democratic governor-elect J.B. Pritzker set to take office next year and newly elected representatives coming in to replace 25 percent of the legislature. In his budget presentation, Metra CEO Jim Derwinski proposed asking the legislature for $5 billion over the next five to seven years, which he suggested would go toward capital projects like buying new locomotives and coaches, repairing more bridges, improving stations, adding more express trains, creating better service to O’Hare and more.

At times, the meeting even grew tense. Board member Ken Koehler, who represents McHenry County, asked whether Derwinski was ready to sell the legislature on the economic benefits of keeping Metra funded: “We have to sell that. Are we prepared to do it? I don’t see it. Show me, Jim. I want to see it. I want to see that you’re ready with your staff to go down to Springfield and put on your big boy pants and say, ‘Guess what. We need this money. We need it now.’”

Derwinski responded that it’s important to take time to properly sell legislators on funding Metra, but that “this is gonna be hard work and it’s gonna be big stuff and I’ll bring as many pairs of pants as we need and go wherever we need to go.”

Pritzker’s campaign has not yet responded to City Bureau’s request for comment on its plans for funding Metra. But his campaign has previously said he would prioritize a capital bill for funding transit infrastructure.

2. The Metra board sees the suburbs as its base

Metra board members made it clear that they see their passenger base as suburban residents commuting into the city for work, even though several Metra lines have stops within the city outside of downtown.

Koehler argued that Metra is important because attracting corporations to downtown Chicago could help economically revitalize Illinois, and people working at those corporations will want to live in the suburbs.

“Metra’s the future. It’s not CTA,” he said emphatically.

Board member John Plante, appointed to represent Cook County’s north suburbs, added that although millennials tend to prefer urban living, he was heartened by a report suggesting that once they do get married and have children, they will move to the suburbs, making them candidates for Metra’s service.

3. CEO Jim Derwinski is dreaming big, even if he doesn’t have the funding yet

Derwinski gave a presentation rattling off some big ideas for improvements to Metra if the agency had a lot of funding, which may be a sign that he is seeking to break Metra’s traditionally conservative approach to maintaining its service.

Derwinski’s suggestions included adding rail yards and double or triple tracking to more lines, which he said would allow Metra to provide more service for “reverse commutes” — or commutes from the city to the suburbs — and, for some lines, midday service. He also mentioned creating a “star line” that would connect the existing Metra lines around the region and expanding the length of several lines to serve more distant communities.

Notably, Derwinksi’s presentation did not mention converting the Metra Electric to rapid transit service — as some South Side activists have called for — or allowing CTA Ventra cards to be used to pay for Metra. He did suggest making improvements to allow the Metra Electric to allow trains to go as fast as 79 miles per hour like they do on the other lines — as opposed to the Metra Electric’s current maximum speed of 65 miles per hour — to help the line better compete with cars.

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