Chicago remade its 127-year-old rapid transit system. Are there lessons for Metro?

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A train arrives at the Washington/Wabash station in Chicago in April. The station was the first new downtown “L” station to open in 20 years. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

August 2 at 9:50 AM

Commuters in the Windy City aren’t an overly effusive bunch. Even so, to hear them talk about their rapid transit system these days would make even the most hardened Washingtonian envious.

“It’s really reliable, even in the coldest weather,” Duane Hill, 50, said one recent morning as he stepped off a Green Line train.

“I don’t even have to check the schedule, because nine times out of 10, everything is going to be just fine,” said Jordan Stark, a former D.C. resident who recently moved back to Chicago.

On time. Imagine that.

As the Washington region endures yet another extended Metro shutdown, complete with the requisite shuttle-bus meltdowns (in June a bus bound for the Pentagon somehow ended up in Anacostia) — it’s tempting for riders to lament that they’re doomed to a system that will never quite get “back to good.”

But there is hope.

For years, Chicago’s system suffered the same woes that plague other big-city public transit systems: Delays. Breakdowns. Old rail cars that rolled along on even older tracks. A $10 billion backlog of maintenance needs. The transit authority was forced to dip into capital funding two years in a row just to balance its budget.

But these days, delays are down, commuter satisfaction is up and ridership is on the rebound. All this in a system far older, far busier and far larger than the Washington region’s Metro. How did they do it? By having elected officials who made improving the system a priority, helped secure billions in funding for those efforts and got buy-in from all the stakeholders, including labor unions, taxpayers and riders.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s roots go back to the late 1800s, when the first privately owned coal-fueled rail cars began carrying passengers. Today, the CTA maintains 224 miles of track and 145 stations. It also provides bus service to the city and its suburbs, operating the second-largest public transportation system in the country. Compared with the CTA, Metro is a mere baby. It opened its first line in 1976 and has since grown to comprise 118 miles of track and 91 stations.

Today, the two systems find themselves in different places.

Even as the Washington region’s population has boomed, more than 100,000 fewer people are riding Metro compared with just a decade ago. And many of those riders — at least 30 percent, according to Metro — have abandoned the rail system because of service and reliability problems. According to recent statistics, average daily ridership has dropped to 595,000, from a peak of 750,000 in 2008. By comparison, the CTA last year had an average daily ridership of nearly 729,000 on its eight lines, up from just over 597,000 a decade before, even as Chicago’s population has shrunk.

Then- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) at City Hall in April. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval R. Carter speaks in April about the artwork at the Garfield Green Line station. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

More importantly, officials say, after years of focused investment — more than $8.5 billion of projects completed, in progress or announced — Chicago’s “L” has become a system you can depend on, riders and officials say.

“You don’t have to rearrange your personal schedule based on your inability to rely on the [system],” Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) said in an interview shortly before leaving office in May. “That’s happening in New York and D.C. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but it doesn’t happen here,” said Emanuel, who many credit with the CTA’s revival.

‘Political leadership’

So what lessons can Metro and the Washington region learn from this city of 2.7 million people?

“It really starts with political leadership,” CTA President Dorval R. Carter said. “When you have that, everything is going to come much easier.”

To Emanuel, fixing the CTA was a no-brainer.

“I knew this was central to Chicago’s economic future,”said Emanuel, who served eight years as mayor. “You cannot have a 21st century economy operating at 21st century speed on a 20th century foundation.”

A working transportation system, he reasoned, would boost the economy, create jobs, help the environment and make everyday life better for thousands of residents. It was a message that resonated.

“He took transportation of out its box and connected it to the larger area of economic growth so fixing the system became about a bigger goal,” said Robert Puentes, executive director of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank. “That was key.”

It wasn’t that other Chicago mayors ignored the city’s transit woes; Emanuel simply put them at the top of his agenda, observers said.

Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), Emanuel’s predecessor, “gave a very high priority to CTA, but it was not his number one,” said Stephen Schlickman, a transportation finance consultant and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who served in the Daley administration. “Emanuel had CTA up there as one of his top priorities. He did more for transit than any other [Chicago] mayor I know.”

Since 2011, the CTA has rebuilt more than 40 stations and opened three new ones. It has replaced nearly 90 miles of track — including a 10-mile stretch on the southern end of the Red Line that has cut 15 to 20 minutes of travel time because trains can go faster. And the CTA now boasts 4G wireless service throughout the entire rail system.

“They didn’t just rebuild,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president for mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “They rebuilt and made it better.”

Emanuel’s successor, Lori Lightfoot (D), said she is committed to building on the progress that has been made.

“Mayor Lightfoot is committed to creating a robust transportation network that moves Chicago forward, prioritizing investments that increase equity and mobility for all neighborhoods, and building on the Chicago Transit Authority’s modernization efforts of the last administration,” spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said. “Among Mayor Lightfoot’s top priorities is ensuring Chicago has a plan to accelerate rail and bus transit improvements already underway, in addition to bringing new investments that will make the system safer, more accessible and reliable for our most underserved communities.”

The Belmont Blue Line station in Chicago. The 50-year-old station was renovated this past winter. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

Many say that the push to rebuild and modernize the system owes some of its success to a governance system that gives the mayor a significant amount of power and control over the CTA.

In Chicago, when things go wrong, it is clear who to blame, but in Washington, Metro is what Eno’s Puente calls an “orphan agency,” governed and funded by three jurisdictions and the federal government.

“The problem we have here in Washington is it is one of the most complicated governance structures,” Puentes said. “There is no other system that crosses into two states, the District, and has the federal government involved as well.”

Additionally, no elected official has stepped up to take ownership of Metro and make it a priority, critics say.

The CTA is governed by a seven-member board, with four members, including the president, appointed by the mayor and three by the governor.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld reports to a 16-member board — eight voting members and eight alternates, consisting of two representatives each from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. Changes designed to streamline the panel’s decision-making reduced the role of the alternate members.

Nevertheless, Wiedefeld must still negotiate among jurisdictions that have their own agendas. Additionally, board members are responsible to the jurisdictions they represent, while many say their only concern should be what is best for the transit agency.

“Washington is a much more complex, multi-state organization, so the solutions are a little more difficult,” APTA’s Guzzetti said.

Leadership might have been key to Chicago’s turnaround, but with a backlog of maintenance needs well into the billions, the agency also needed money.

Emanuel helped persuade Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to create a federal grant program to fix aging systems. The first recipient of those federal dollars? The CTA, which will use a $957 million grant to help fund a $2.1 billion modernization of the northern portion of its Red and Purple lines, the largest project in the agency’s history.

Emanuel lobbied then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for money through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program, which awards low-interest loans for transportation projects.

The federal dollars were matched with local funds generated through the creation of special tax districts in areas where transportation improvements were being made.

Chicago also tapped other sources for revenue. Despite heavy lobbying by the ride-hailing industry, it was the first city to enact an “Uber tax,” funding capital improvements including track and signal upgrades in the transit system. Other cities, including Washington, soon followed suit. The District uses revenue generated by its ride-hailing surcharge to help pay for its share of dedicated funding for Metro.

Passengers on Chicago’s Blue Line, which connects to O’Hare International Airport. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

CTA officials also worked to reduce operating costs at the agency, cutting the number of managers and leaving some jobs unfilled. In exchange for raises, unions agreed to some concessions, including higher employee contributions to health-care costs.

Kenneth Franklin, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents 3,000 CTA employees, including train operators, said that while investments have been made in the system, he sees problems that are not necessarily visible to the rider. One example: Staffing cuts mean that trains are not cleaned as well.

A Red Line shutdown

When it came time to begin the CTA’s first major rebuilding project, in 2013 — the reconstruction of 10 miles of track on the southern end of the Red Line — agency officials opted to shut down a portion of the line rather than relegate the work to weekends. It replaced train service with free shuttles. The result? The $425 million project took five months rather than four years to complete.

While it was rebuilding the tracks, the agency also spent $280 million to revamp one of its Red Line stations, replacing a single circa-1969 building with north and south terminals and adding a meeting space for community groups and a DJ booth and radio station that broadcasts during commute hours.

“There was a lot of skepticism,” said Rebekah Scheinfeld, who was a CTA official during the rebuilding project and who led the Chicago Department of Transportation under Emanuel. “But to have such a dramatic improvement gave us a lot of credibility in the community.”

The Red Line project was followed by the $492 million “Your New Blue” project to rehabilitate 13 stations between O’Hare International Airport and downtown and update tracks and signals. The project, slated to be completed in mid-2021, is expected to cut travel time between O’Hare and downtown by 10 minutes.

If Washington-area residents see echoes of Chicago’s strategy for rebuilding Metro, it’s not their imagination.

A few months after taking the top job at Metro in November 2015, Wiedefeld, members of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments invited chief executives from several public transit agencies to the District for a briefing. Among those included on the guest list: the CTA’s Carter.

Commuters at Union Station in Chicago. (Youngrae Kim for The Washington Post)

Though Chicago has a significantly larger and older system, the city’s experience offered a preview of what Wiedefeld was about to embark on with his own rebuilding plan.

Carter’s best advice? Stick with it.

“The bottom line was infrastructure ages and you need to continually invest,” Wiedefeld said, recalling the meeting. “And if you don’t invest, you’re digging a deeper hole. And it gets deeper pretty quickly because of age and deterioration.”

Wiedefeld took other lessons from Chicago’s experience, namely that the system focused on fixing what it had, not on building new things. Just a few months after that meeting with Carter and other transit executives, Wiedefeld unveiled a far-reaching plan for remaking the system, which included a call for $15.5 billion over 10 years to ensure Metro remained “safe and reliable.”

Carter said that given the complexity of its governance structure, Metro faces challenges in building support for its initiatives. But, he said, the transit agency under Wiedefeld is moving forward.

“I know Paul very well, and he has done what many of us thought was an unbelievable task of bringing that region together and getting the support that he needed to deal with the issues that they were facing in that system,” Carter said. “There’s no question in my mind that [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] is in a much better place today than it was and has a much brighter future than five years ago.”

In the end, though, it is riders who are the final judges.

“It was horrible,” Chicago resident Paula Wills, 39, said recently as she headed off to catch her Red Line train at the new 95th Street station. “It took some time, but I like the outcome.”

Lynda May, 39, a regular Green Line rider, remembers frustrating times when trains broke down or were so crowded she would have to wait for several to pass before she could grab a spot. The system, she said, is the most dependable and efficient it has been in years.

“It works,” she said.