Transit predictions for 2021: Air travel rebounds, Metra has 'existentialist' crisis
Uncertain what 2021 will bring after a year of empty Metra trains, roads, airports and state coffers, thanks to COVID-19?
Fear not. Five experts have gazed into their crystal balls and offer predictions starting with domestic air travel bouncing back in June.
Airlines suffered a hit in 2020, but "the confidence imbued by the (COVID-19) vaccines will encourage many who had previously been reluctant to once again take to the skies," DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman said.
There are nuances. "Travel to densely populated cities will lag behind sunny vacation spots. People will still have hang-ups about traveling to major cities through late 2021, despite vaccines," added Schwieterman, director of DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
And, "travelers will be pleasantly surprised at how airfares remain low."
Northwestern University transportation economist Ian Savage wonders why "we have not seen more bankruptcies among international carriers. But I think a shake-up is on its way."
Shifting to terra firma, Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard expects "post-vaccine, we will gradually see a climb in mass transit ridership in 2021. But as peoples' work patterns evolve, transit must continue to innovate."
One certainty, "where transit goes, the economy grows," said Dillard, a former Republican state senator.
Savage warned, "if people do not return to the office five days a week, then ridership will not go back to anywhere near pre-pandemic levels on the CTA's El and on Metra. I think we are in an existentialist crisis for Metra."
Annoyingly, "more congestion on area highways will rear its ugly head, particularly in late afternoons and weekends, as work-from-home lifestyles change the way we move around," Schwieterman promised.
And, after a cycling renaissance in 2020, "suburban governments will feel pressure to provide more amenities for bicyclists and walkers," Schwieterman said.
State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Ram Villivalam anticipates "we will see equity at the center of our transit and transportation improvements." One early example is the Fair Transit pilot program in south Cook and northern Will counties offering 50% off Metra Electric and Rock Island lines and expanding Pace service, the Chicago Democrat said.
"Additionally, we are paying close attention to ZIP codes with high COVID-19 positivity ratings and keeping transit lines that run between those communities and health care centers in operation," Villivalam noted.
The state's six-year, $45 billion capital program predicated on a windfall from higher gas taxes hit a speed bump with the pandemic, trailing last year's revenues by 54%, according to Illinois comptroller's office data.
As a result, "Illinois will need to become more nimble and, rather than building new multibillion dollar mega-highways, we must focus on improvements to our existing roads," Grayslake Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush said.
"Desperately needed projects like the Routes 83 and 120 grade separation will finally begin to move ahead in the pipeline," added Bush, a Transportation Committee member.
Savage gave a shoutout to the logistics and supply chain industry. "We should all be grateful for what trucking, local delivery, air cargo and railroads have done for us in 2020, and what they and their employees will do to deliver the vaccine in 2021."
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You should know
If you're flying over the holidays, Midway and O'Hare international airports both offer COVID-19 testing but at a price. Walk-up sites are available at both airports with PCR tests costing $145 with results in 48 hours or rapid antigen tests for $120 with results in 20 minutes. For more information or to schedule a test, go to doctorstestcenters.com/flychi.
Expect delays and lane closures on Windsor Drive in Oak Brook in 2021. The Illinois tollway is rebuilding and widening the Windsor Road bridge over ramps connecting the Reagan Memorial Tollway and the Tri-State Tollway. Work will last through 2021. Access to both toll roads will remain open with shoulder closures and traffic shifts.
More Metra trains coming
Metra is adjusting schedules on the North Central Service, Milwaukee North and Milwaukee West lines effective Jan. 11. The railroad is also adding trains to the Milwaukee North and West routes after COVID-19 reductions. For revised schedules, go to metrarail.com.