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Legislative Update: Lawmakers take important steps to make transit system less reliant on fares

June 1, 2023

City train bus

The Illinois General Assembly adjourned this year’s spring legislative session after passing a $50.6 billion budget for FY2024 and several initiatives aimed at addressing some of transit’s most pressing challenges. This legislation requires the governor’s signature before becoming law.

Relief from 50 percent farebox recovery ratio requirement

The General Assembly took a critical step in extending relief for the transit system from the 50 percent farebox recovery ratio requirement that was in place prior to the start of the pandemic in 2020. The current waiver from the requirement was set to expire at the end of this year but will now stay in place through 2025.

Before farebox recovery ratio relief first passed in 2020, Chicago’s regional transit operators – CTA, Metra, and Pace – were required by state law to raise at least 50 percent of their revenue from fares. This requirement, which is by far the highest in the nation, forces agencies to focus primarily on increasing fare revenue, limiting their ability to experiment with new and different types of service that may not result in immediate ridership gains. It also prevents agencies from increasing attention on delivering equitable service to the people who need it the most.

While relief from the requirement is critical, this step alone does not address the Chicago region’s current operating funding crisis. Ultimately our region needs new funding for transit operations to close our projected $730 million funding gap starting in 2026, and prevent major fare hikes and service cuts. We continue to speak with local, state, and federal officials about how we can work together to increase operations funding and ensure agencies can deliver high-quality, affordable service.

Additional transit system reforms

The extended relief from the farebox recovery ratio was part of House Bill 1342, an “omnibus” transit package that includes new free and reduced fare programs, giving agencies the ability to suspend repeat offenders, and a zero-emission vehicle mandate, among other items. Here’s some of what lawmakers included in the package:

  • Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault RTA Public Transportation Assistance Program: To uphold the safety and dignity of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, RTA will partner with The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence to provide survivors with pre-loaded $20 fare cards.
  • One Summer Chicago Reduced Fare Program: In partnership with the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program, service boards will offer reduced fares to youth and young adults seeking job and internship opportunities through the program.
  • Free and reduced fare program study: RTA will work with the legislature to provide an update on how free and reduced fare programs support the riders that use them, how existing programs can be improved, and plans to build a more equitable fare system overall. This report is due by July 2024.
  • Suspending Riders: The package allows service boards to suspend fare cards from repeat offenders. A notice and appeals process is in place so cases are thoroughly reviewed.
  • Youth Jobs Program: By the beginning of 2024, Metra and Pace will create or partner with a youth jobs program to offer internship and employment opportunities to young adults across the service region. With the entire transportation industry facing retention and recruitment challenges, this program will help increase the pool of transit workers for Chicago area agencies.
  • Zero-Emission Buses: Starting on July 1, 2026, service boards will be required to purchase zero-emission buses for their fleets. There are exceptions if zero-emission buses are unavailable from a manufacturer; if the necessary charging, fueling, or storage facilities are unavailable; or if the funding for the buses and related infrastructure is unavailable.
  • New Data Requirements: Lastly, service boards will be required to make a variety of data available to the legislature related to system reliability and safety. Staffing levels, scheduled and delivered service, and system safety data will be made more accessible and reported to the General Assembly.

Other legislation affecting transit

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1892, making changes to the RTA’s free and reduced fare programs for seniors and people living with a disability to make it easier for enrollees to renew their benefits.

Legislators also passed House Bill 2068, requiring that all qualifying employers within one mile of transit service in the RTA region will begin to offer the federal pre-tax transportation benefit program, which allows their employees to purchase transit passes tax-free.

Looking ahead

All these measures passed both chambers of the General Assembly and are expected to be sent to the governor to sign into law in the coming months. Many of the policies passed this session support the goals outlined in Transit is the Answer, including creating a more equitable fare structure, making the system safer and more accessible, and accelerating the transition to a zero-emission system. The RTA will continue to work with legislators to address the impending fiscal cliff and to implement the plan’s full Action and Advocacy agendas.

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