Possible Metra fare increases and service cuts inspired Friday's hearing, but in the end state Sen. Susan Garrett was more upset about a potential $7.3 billion deficit in the agency's capital fund by 2015.
Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate's local government committee, and Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the transportation committee, called a joint hearing Friday in Chicago to grill leaders of Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority.
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Afterward, Garrett said she would pursue legislation to get a 10-year financial forecast for both operating and capital budgets for the boards that operate under the RTA: Metra, PACE and the CTA.
"We will have more hearings," said Garrett. "When we are finding out about such a huge capital shortfall, $100 million seems like a small piece of the pie."
Metra's projection of a $100 million operating deficit next year has led to the possibility of service cuts and fare increases, which prompted Friday's hearing.
Garrett also suggested a law that would demand the agencies work together to purchase goods and services and thus save money. She complained that there should not be bureaucratic roadblocks to joint purchases.
John S. Gates Jr., RTA chairman, said the deficit for equipment and infrastructure for all three agencies will total $26 billion, with the CTA in the worst position.
He also said the biggest problem for riders is trying to coordinate travel across the three systems, especially for people who do not ride transit regularly.
Garrett and Sandoval called for more transparency from the Metra board regarding finances and possible service cuts.
"Maybe these cuts and fare increases are justified; I don't know, " Garrett said. "They are somewhat questionable, and where did the $100 million deficit come from?"
Alex Clifford, Metra's chief executive officer since February, said the $100 million estimated deficit for 2012 is caused by fuel costs that could rise even more, lower sales taxes than projected, and the decision to quit transferring money from the capital fund to cover operating expenses.
Equipment breakdowns are already occurring because the capital fund deficit is causing Metra to postpone needed work on trains, Clifford said. Budget documents on Metra's website said engine rehabilitation has been extended to 12 years from the ideal 10.
The federal government will have to provide most of the money for the capital fund, and the state will need to contribute, too, Clifford said.
One of Garrett's complaints was that Metra officials could not tell her what this year's capital fund deficit is. Clifford said they have such a figure but could not provide it Friday.
He also disagreed with Garrett that the $7.3 billion figure had not been talked about at Metra board meetings.
Sandoval said this was the first time legislators have been told that Metra has serious long-term financial problems. He also complained about aspects of executive pay and benefits.
"For years Metra and this board have said things are hunky dory and Metra is a beacon of efficiency and stability," said Sandoval.
Clifford explained that possible service cuts could include doing away with a rush hour train on each line if an earlier and later train was not full. Studies show 15 percent of riders on the canceled train would quit riding Metra, he said.
Garrett complained that Metra is talking about making these cuts, based on figures from 2006.
Metra fares are about half as much as the average of other large metropolitan train systems in the country, Clifford said. He and Gates said all older urban systems have serious capital fund issues.