RTA outlines process to distribute federal COVID relief funds, analyze critical transit need

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the RTA is in the midst of its three step recovery strategy to sustain the region’s transit system and plan for its future. 

December 17 marked the end of Step 1, to adopt a 2021 budget that reflects the realities of the current crisisStep 2 is now underway, to execute the 2021 budget and make decisions as needed to sustain transit through time of uncertainty. Read more about Step 2 in a staff memo to the RTA Board before its January 21, 2021 meeting.

Step 2 includes several key questions the RTA must address while working with the CTA, Metra, and Pace (known as the “Service Boards”)

  • How can the RTA Board work to identify immediate funding solutions?  
  • How should the RTA Board support the Service Boards’ efforts to sustain critical transit services?  
  • How can the RTA Board guide the agency to take a transparent, collaborative approach to communicating with stakeholders and the public?  

Exploring funding solutions
The answer to the first question became clearer on December 27 with passage of second federal COVID relief package. The bill includes $14 billion for transit agencies nationwide, including approximately $486.2 million for the greater Chicago urbanized area. While this amount comes close to filling an anticipated 2021 regional budget gap of $500 million, it is not a complete solution: Additional funding may be needed in the future, because the timeline of transit’s recovery remains unclear.  

Sustaining critical transit service
The second question the RTA hopes to address in this step of the recovery strategy focuses on sustaining critical transit service, which is a priority for the RTA and the Service Boards. Despite the pandemic, our transit system is providing 500,000 trips every weekday, including many by essential workers who are critical to pandemic response and people who rely on transit. 

Especially due to limited resources, funding must be directed to the people and places that need it the most. RTA staff will recommend distributing the latest federal relief funds based on geographic areas of the region where transit is most likely to be used and needed in 2021.  The intention is that this allocation on Step 2 relief and any recommended action resulting from it will be unique and specific to relief funds that are currently available.   

To facilitate distribution of these funds, the RTA is carefully identifying Critical Need Areas (CNAs) by analyzing factors such as: 

  • Who is most likely to use transit? 
  • Who is most likely to need transit from an equity perspective? 
  • Which industries are most likely to need transit? 

Watch a presentation to the RTA Board of Directors from January 21 (video beginning at 19:00) to learn more. 

Communicating transparently and collaboratively
RTA staff is committed to an ongoing and open dialogue with partners, the public, and the civic community throughout this processThis will include information sharing and collaboration with our transit partners on this work over the next several months as well as period of public comment to collect feedback. Our goal is to reach regional consensus on the most critical geographic areas where transit service must be sustained throughout 2021.  

The RTA plans to adhere to the timeline below to determine federal relief fund distribution, emphasizing transparency and accountability. 

  • February: The RTA Board of Directors will discuss and release proposed recommendations for relief fund distribution, which will be open for public comment through March 5, 2021. 
  • March: Following the public comment period, the RTA Board will vote on the recommended allocation and initiate a budget amendment for the 2021 operating budget to distribute the relief funds. 
  • Spring 2021: RTA staff will move on to the recovery strategy Step 3, which includes strategic recovery planning to reimagine transit in the region, with an outlook to 2023 and beyond. 

The next RTA Board of Directors meeting will be held at 9 a.m. on Thursday, February 18. The virtual meeting will be streamed on YouTube Live