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With Ridership Down 82% During Coronavirus Pandemic, Why Is CTA Running On Normal Schedule?

CHICAGO (CBS) -- 'L' trains have been virtually empty as they've rumbled down the trestles, through the subways, and along expressway medians lately.

The Chicago Transit Authority told CBS 2 that overall ridership is down 82%– a drop from 68% overall ridership two weeks ago – in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

So given all that, why are CTA buses and trains still running on a normal schedule? CBS 2's Lauren Victory investigated.

It has been a ridership roller coaster for the CTA. As COVID-19 fears go up, the number of passengers takes a dip – on the rails alone, it's a dip of 87%.

The track isn't looking good, with Illinois now under a stay-at-home order until the end of the month.

At the Roosevelt station during rush hour one recent day, there were only two people waiting for the Orange Line. On Western Avenue in Bucktown, nobody was heading up the stairs to the Blue Line elevated tracks, and at Fullerton on the Red Line, seats are suddenly available at 8 a.m.

And at the Garfield Red Line stop along the Dan Ryan Expressway, the CTA usually clocks 2,600 people on an average weekday. The No. 55 bus route along Garfield Boulevard usually clocks another 8,000 people daily.

We saw some traffic on buses, which are doing a little better than trains with a 76% decrease in riders.

"If they say stay in the house, I'm pretty sure people are trying to abide by that," said CTA rider Lawrence Cullens. "But right now, it's rush hour. You don't see nobody out here. It's crazy!"

Some people, including public safety officer Eddie Washington, still rely on transit to get to essential jobs.

"It makes a great deal of sense to me that they're still riding and keeping their normal schedule," Washington said.

But crunching the numbers makes all the empty train cars hard to swallow.

The CTA's most recent budget data shows it costs $121 million a month to operate, which divides out to about $4 million per day.

Vacant stops are barely making a dent.

We asked transit expert Joe Schwieterman about the CTA's ability to scale back during the pandemic.

"If they run too much, their budget is going to be a financial disaster," Schwieterman said. "CTA is between a rock and a hard place. If they cut the schedule too much to protect their workers and so forth, you end up with crowding on trains, people bunching up."

And that is the reasoning the CTA used for the fact that there are no plans to decrease service. Fewer passengers means more social distancing.

The CTA confirms seven workers have tested positive for COVID-19, but that is out of 11,000 employees.

Meantime, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she has heard concerns about an increase in homeless people using the CTA. She said Family & Support Services and Housing Department employees are riding the trains every day to identify people in need.

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