CHICAGO (CBS) — Facing a grim financial future as ridership has plummeted 90% during the pandemic, Metra is launching a $1 million ad campaign in an effort to convince commuters to start riding trains again.
The “My Metra” campaign focuses on the commuter rail agency’s efforts to regularly sanitize trains and stations, require masks on board throughout all trips, and provide plenty of room for social distancing.
“The thrust of this effort is to tell our customers that we’re ready for them when they’re ready for us,’ said Metra CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski. “They will find clean stations and trains, a mask requirement, plenty of room for physical distancing and a multitude of signs and announcements reinforcing our efforts to help them Commute with Confidence.”
The ads also highlight Metra’s use of hospital-grade air filters on its trains, as well as touchless hand sanitizer dispensers in each car.
The ad campaign on TV, radio, billboards, and online comes as Metra’s latest financial report forecasts a combined $682 million shortfall in passenger and sales tax revenue for this year and next.
According to the commuter rail agency’s July financial report, ridership is down 90%, and appears to have plateaued, as many downtown offices keep people working from home, and many schools stick with remote learning for the start of the school year. The report by Metra Chief Financial Officer Thomas Farmer predicts ridership will rebound only to about 30% of pre-COVID levels by the end of 2020.
That would still leave a gaping hole in Metra’s budget, with passenger revenue and sales tax revenue falling short of original projections by more than $330 million for 2020. The forecast predicts that shortfall will grow to $352 million in 2021.
Metra has adjusted its service schedules due to the pandemic, for a savings of about $7 million a month, but the agency is still running largely empty trains.
The report reveals Metra expects many of its riders may now permanently work from home, even once the pandemic is under control.
“We have known for years our riders were telecommuting once a week or more,” the report states. “A shift that would normally take 10-20 years seems to have occurred in 10-20 weeks.”
The report also notes low gas prices and lower traffic congestion have led many people who have returned to working from the office to drive downtown, rather than taking public transit.
If Metra expects riders to return, it will not only need more businesses to bring their workforce back to the office, and schools to resume in-person classes, but transit officials must help riders get comfortable returning to public transit.
The report suggests Metra will need to adjust service to meet shifting demand, and allow for social distancing, as well as experiment with fare collection techniques.
Farmer’s report also warns that federal funding provided by the CARES Act coronavirus relief package will run out in the middle of next year at the current pace Metra is using that money, when it will be needed through the end of 2021. As of the end of July, Metra had spent approximately $125 million of the $479 million in federal relief funds it received. Farmer’s report said officials will be taking steps to ensure their funds don’t run out before the end of 2021
Funding provided through the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress in March can only be used to cover COVID-related expenses, not to make up for lost tax revenue.
Meantime, to keep its workforce productively employed while service is reduced, Metra said it has shifted employees freed up by the shifts in schedules to accelerate capital programs, such as repairs and maintenance.