Pace looks to electric buses, Uber rides and express to O'Hare to rebuild COVID-19 damage
As Pace prepares its second COVID-19 budget, positives for suburban bus riders include no fare hikes, a future fleet of electric buses and a $2 Uber ride pilot project in Naperville.
On the negative side: 70 bus routes remain suspended, 20 offer limited service, and ridership continues at less than 50% of pre-pandemic levels with thousands still working remotely.
Last year, Pace Executive Director Rocky Donahue called the 2021 budget one of the "hardest" ever to draft.
But he characterized the 2022 version as "arguably the most positive annual budget I believe Pace has ever presented in the history of our organization."
The $272.6 million fiscal plan raises spending by 13% above the estimated $240 million in 2021. It's also 15% higher than the 2019 budget of $236 million.
And, the increase comes with farebox proceeds far below pre-COVID tallies. But an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding is bolstering shaky revenues, as is the case with Metra.
Of the $272.6 million, $7 million is allocated to expand the agency's shrunken service, mostly "to add increased service on our most productive routes," which are mainly in Cook County, Donahue said.
Also, Pace will debut a new north Cook County express bus route, the Dempster Pulse.
The express bus will circulate mainly on Dempster and Lee streets plus Mannheim Road. Major destinations will include O'Hare International Airport, the Des Plaines Metra, and CTA Yellow and Purple Line stations in Skokie and Evanston.
In a significant shift, the agency will invest $5 million to partner with Uber and Lyft, subsidizing ride-share trips in communities where work-from-home trends have decimated a familiar part of suburban life: Pace buses traveling to and from Metra stations.
"We were hopeful Labor Day was going to bring a bigger spike with commuters. That hasn't occurred," Donahue said, adding business leaders are now looking to January for a workplace return.
An Uber/Lyft pilot project will begin next year in Naperville in an effort to meet changing transit needs.
Naperville residents traveling to a Metra station will be able to hail a cheap Uber or Lyft ride, subsidized by Pace, Donahue said.
And "if you want to go to downtown Naperville for dinner or to the festivals that they have, or you need to get to a medical appointment ... this is going to open up much more transit options than a commuter bus that only runs during the peak hours."
"It's utilizing things differently, not just putting the traditional service where it's been."
The cost hasn't been finalized, but Donahue anticipated it could be $2, the typical fare on a Pace bus.
Another $3 million is targeted to boost Dial-A-Ride programs that typically serve seniors and riders with disabilities across the region. Of that $3 million pie, $1 million gives established Dial-A-Rides a 15% increase, $1 million will foster Uber and Lyft partnerships with Dial-A-Rides, and $1 million will be split among the collar counties to grow or establish Dial-A-Rides.
Some drivers of increased spending are a spike in diesel fuel from $1 a gallon in 2020 to nearly $2, and rehiring workers. About 60 jobs are vacant.
Regarding revenues, increasing fares was a nonstarter, Donahue said. "We're not going to raise fares when we're trying to attract riders back."
Switching to the capital budget, 2022 kicks off a massive initiative to switch Pace's fleet from diesel to electric starting with $10 million for buses in the Waukegan North Division next year.
"The goal is to get to zero emissions by 2040," Donahue said. Pace directors will vote on the 2022 proposal in November.
This will be unpleasant. IDOT is closing Algonquin Road at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Wolf Road in Des Plaines Oct. 26 to 31. Workers are repairing the crossing and detours will be posted.
One more thing
Speaking of Pace, the agency brings back the Soldier Field Express for the noon Oct. 31 Bears game. Buses will depart at various times from stops including the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg, plus Pace Park-n-Rides in Bolingbrook, Burr Ridge and Hillside. For information, go to pacebus.com/soldierfield.
Reader Josef Schwab has a solution to traffic jams if the Chicago Bears move to Arlington Park. With excess racetrack land, "the Bears could have their own entrance and off ramp from Route 53. Add Metra (trains) and express buses from Rosemont -- no worries," he explained.
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