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updated: 7/25/2011 9:03 AM

Venting about higher tolls, fewer trains

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  • Are higher tolls on the horizon? It's a possibility as Illinois State Toll Highway Authority directors prepare to vote on a 10-year-capital plan that could include an Elgin-O'Hare extension and western bypass around the airport, widening and rebuilding I-90, and an interchange at I-294 and I-57 in the south suburbs.

      Are higher tolls on the horizon? It's a possibility as Illinois State Toll Highway Authority directors prepare to vote on a 10-year-capital plan that could include an Elgin-O'Hare extension and western bypass around the airport, widening and rebuilding I-90, and an interchange at I-294 and I-57 in the south suburbs.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

Has the train left the station on Metra fare hikes and service cuts?

Are we on the road to a toll increase?

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Cliched puns are my only comfort as I contemplate shelling out more every day on I-355 or my Metra BNSF line.

I can't even fire both services and switch to Pace since my last attempt at taking the bus to work lasted three hours.

I could be wrong, but my gut says we're in for more expensive tolls plus a combination of service cuts and higher fares on Metra.

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority directors could vote as soon as next Thursday on a 10-year-capital plan. I predict it will include the Elgin-O'Hare extension and western bypass around the airport, widening and rebuilding I-90, and an interchange at I-294 and I-57 in the south suburbs.

The catch is the tollway is $1 billion short on funding for repaving and maintenance on its existing roads. New construction will cost billions more. Hmmm ... now where would that money come from?

Meanwhile, Metra's predicting a $100 million shortfall in 2013 in part because of punishing diesel fuel costs. The agency has been relying on capital dollars to make up the difference.

Staff is recommending raising fares, eliminating certain trains or both to make ends meet.

It seems like only yesterday I quoted Gov. Pat Quinn saying, "that's not going to happen," after asking him in April 2010 about a potential toll increase.

Or when I wrote about Metra finances in May 2009 after then Executive Director Phil Pagano said diesel fuel was so cheap it would forestall any fare increases in 2010 and beyond. Regarding 2011, "it's several years away; we hope the economy is in far better shape," Pagano said.

The tollway has the advantage in that it can point to new projects as justification for higher rates, whereas Metra doesn't have as sexy a rationale.

The tollway also could offer a diverse menu of fare hikes, such as higher priced express lanes or lower rates for traveling at off-peak times. Perhaps that's something Metra might consider, too, in relation to rush-hour pricing or express trains.

The big question is -- when do we get our say? Giving consumers a chance to comment on any rate increases is essential, especially since both agencies are trying to move beyond troubled pasts -- political interference in the case of the tollway and financial abuses at Metra under Pagano.

Tollway CEO Kristi Lafleur said "there's always a hearing process with any kind of toll increase proposal. We definitely want to get that feedback."

Metra will hold hearings later this fall after directors approve a preliminary budget, officials said. I'm thinking it would be better to hold public hearings before the preliminary budget, but that's just me.

What do you say? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Sound off to Metra

What do you think about potential fare hikes and service reductions at Metra? Agency officials are asking riders to comment through a website survey at metrarail.com. Metra faces a shortfall in its operating budget caused partly by high diesel fuel costs and the recession's impact on sales taxes, which fund public transit.

Gridlock alert

I hopped on I-90 westbound at Arlington Heights last week and soon ran into resurfacing work. Ay caramba! It brought back painful memories of I-290 construction last summer I thought I'd repressed. Starting this week, the westbound exit ramp to South Barrington Road and the eastbound entrance ramp from South Barrington Road will close from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. through Friday.

You should know

So you land at O'Hare on a cosmopolitan high after a fabulous trip to Paris. Quelle horreur! Nothing like the utilitarian surroundings of International Terminal 5 to bring you down to earth. The Chicago Aviation Department hopes to change that with a new concessions management company. The previous manager had projected paying the city $67 million in rent over 10 years but fell short, producing only $28 million.

Thursday, a city committee approved a new contract with Westfield Concessions Management, which is promising to invest $26 million in Terminal 5. The contract goes to the city council this week.

Westfield promises to introduce a variety of restaurants, newsstands and gift shops. "It will be more like our domestic terminals where you not only have concessions landside but have concessions where the passengers are," Aviation Commission Rosemarie Andolino said. "Concessions that are available and open while passengers are there with services as well as retail."

One more thing

Pace bus riders in the Naperville/Lisle area who use Routes 829 or 828 should prepare for some changes. Pace directors recently voted to modify the bus routes because of low ridership. The revisions should streamline service, officials said, adding they expect passenger numbers to pick up when Navistar moves into its new headquarters. For more information, visit pacebus.com.

Your say

Bob Foys of Inverness weighed in after my column about complaints that the latest federal surface transportation proposal, which funds roads and transit, is underfunded. "The federal gasoline tax has essentially remained unchanged since it was set at 18.4 cents per gallon in 1993," he wrote. "Adjusted for price inflation over the past 18 years, the tax would now be 29 cents a gallon. "Raising the federal tax by a dime a gallon wouldn't even match the effects of inflation, but would do much to close the funding shortfall. With the national average cost at around $3.60 a gallon, that dime would hardly be noticed by motorists. It's generally much fairer to fund transportation appropriations through a user fee. Unfortunately, politicians are cowards when it comes to doing anything -- no matter how necessary -- that will displease their constituents," Foys said.

Coming soon

State Sen. Susan Garrett, whose name strikes terror into Metra and tollway officials, and Sen. Martin Sandoval, who heads the Transportation Committee, will hold a public hearing on possible train reductions and ticket increases from 10 a.m. to noon Friday at 120 N. LaSalle St., Chicago. Garrett has taken the tollway and Metra to task previously, seeking reforms at both agencies.

And, finally

Due to popular demand, the deadline for the Best Road Trip Song Ever contest is extended until this Friday. Email mpyke@dailyherald.com the song name, musician and why it's the best ever. What others submitted? Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the Andrews Sisters' "Cuanto Le Gusto," "Slow Ride" by Foghat, and Wilco's "Passenger Side," to name a few.

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