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RTA hopes $5 million marketing push will bring more riders

RTA ridership Chicago arehas been flfor two decades. | Sun-Times File Photo

RTA ridership in the Chicago area has been flat for two decades. | Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: May 21, 2014 5:38PM

Regional Transportation Authority officials Wednesday agreed to spend up to $5 million over three years on a marketing campaign to boost Chicago-area transit ridership — something that hasn’t budged for years.

The action by RTA board members comes after Gov. Quinn’s transit task force repeatedly bemoaned the region’s 20 years of flatlining transit ridership and said the RTA should be dumped.

RTA staff said it sees ridership growth potential among the region’s increasing population of older adults; its tourists and other occasional riders; and its reverse commuters.

RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. strongly endorsed the marketing idea, saying “there are many, many empty seats out there” during non-rush hours.

Too many residents don’t know how to use the region’s various transit options and maps about them are “difficult to understand and not very well distributed,’’ Gates said.

RTA Board member Don Totten, a Metra rider, said transit can be intimidating to senior citizens. Plus, the vast majority of Metra riders still buy tickets or passes from personnel at Metra station windows, an RTA spokeswoman noted.

“Most people my age are afraid of machines,’’ said Totten, 81. “I’ve never used a fare card machine. I don’t know how to use it.’’

Only 12 percent of the region’s reverse-commutes — by people who live in Chicago and work in the suburbs — are made by transit, compared to 42 percent of traditional commutes, RTA officials said.

Board members agreed to hire Downtown Partners Communications for up to $5 million for 38 months to launch the marketing campaign. Downtown Partners counts among its clients the Illinois Lottery, Walgreen’s, the Lyric Opera and the Shedd Aquarium, RTA staff said.

The campaign will use digital, cable, billboard, print and other forms of advertising to promote the region’s transit options. The first ads should hit late this year or early 2015, said RTA market development manager Mark Minor.

The logos of the CTA, Metra and Pace will be “front and center” throughout the campaign although some ads may emphasize one of the three providers a bit more because of where they are placed, said RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden.

Board member Dwight Magalis asked what happens if “we don’t exist” at some point during the 38-month contract — as Gov. Quinn’s Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force recommended on Mar. 31. Magalis was assured the deal has an exit clause.

To recoup $5 million spent on the contract, the CTA, Metra and Pace would have to rack up 2.5 million to 3.7 million additional rides over three years, Minor said. About 75 percent of the up to $5 million deal will be spent on ads, Minor said.

Also Wednesday, RTA officials said the CTA was running $8.3 million short of its 2014 budget projections when expected shortfalls in public funding are added in.

RTA Chief Financial Officer Bea Reyna-Hickey said the CTA’s 2014 shortfall was “not unusual” given the increased costs and reduced ridership associated with January’s brutal weather. The first-quarter shortfall comes early enough in the year for the CTA to make up the difference during the rest of the year, she said.

The shortfall follows a whistleblower lawsuit filed this month in which a former CTA budget analyst accused the CTA of laying him off because he questioned the agency’s 2013 budget numbers. CTA officials call the suit “baseless.”


Twitter: @rosalindrossi

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