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updated: 11/12/2011 8:36 AM

Commuters concerned with Metra fare hikes

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  • Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.

       Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.

       Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.

       Metra passengers will see fare hikes in February.
    Gilbert R. Boucher | Staff Photographer

  • Metra trustee and Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder and acting Chairman Larry Huggins deliberate prior to voting in favor of a fare increase Friday.

       Metra trustee and Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder and acting Chairman Larry Huggins deliberate prior to voting in favor of a fare increase Friday.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Metra CEO Alex Clifford answers questions during a news conference after the Metra board voted for a fare increases Friday.

       Metra CEO Alex Clifford answers questions during a news conference after the Metra board voted for a fare increases Friday.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Metra's board of directors listen to a budget forecast prior to voting on a fare increase Friday.

       Metra's board of directors listen to a budget forecast prior to voting on a fare increase Friday.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Metra CEO talks about fare hikes

  • Metra fare hikes

    Graphic: Metra fare hikes

  • Metra fare hikes

    Graphic: Metra fare hikes

 
 

Commuters reacted with concern, irritation and resignation to historic fare increases approved unanimously by Metra leaders Friday.

Suburban riders can expect average increases of 30 percent on 10-ride tickets and 29 percent on monthly passes.

"A lot of people can't afford to own cars and insurance," said Steven Salzman, a furniture mover from Arlington Heights. "People are on budgets. People locally depend on Metra, and Metra knows that. I understand rising fuel costs and all that, but they're going to hit the people where it hurts, in the pocketbook."

Agency leaders said the new rates, starting Feb. 1, are painful but necessary after past financial mismanagement and steep diesel prices created a $53 million projected deficit in 2012.

"I don't think anyone is happy about having to raise fares but it's the responsible thing to do," Metra Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said.

Arlington Heights Mayor and Metra Director Arlene Mulder said the fare increases were an alternative to reducing train runs -- something riders opposed. "They did not want to see any service cuts," she said.

With the changes, a 10-ride pass between zones A and E will spike from $36.55 to $47.25, and a monthly pass will jump from $116.10 to $149.50. One-way tickets will increase by an average of 16 percent.

The overall fare hike is 25 percent.

Reacting to the hike later in the day, commuter Jeff Green of Aurora lamented the size of the increase. "It's never that they want another dime," he said, "it's always that they want to whop you with a big increase."

Metra board directors also voted on a measure preventing riders from hoarding tickets at the cheaper pre-hike price. The ticket expiration policy states 10-ride and one-way tickets purchased Saturday through Jan. 31 are valid only through Feb. 29. Without such a step, Metra could lose up to $2.7 million in 2012, officials said.

Metra CEO Alex Clifford acknowledged higher prices will be hard on low-income riders.

"We don't want to lose any riders as a result. We hope they understand what a struggle this was," he said.

"I hope to never bring this size of an increase back to the board. This will place the agency on a stable financial course."

Clifford didn't rule out raising rates in the future but promised, "today we start looking for other efficiencies and ways to reduce and even eliminate a fare increase in 2013."

Stephanie Guzman of Elgin said these are tough times for a rate hike.

"I think that they shouldn't keep raising the prices because obviously, everybody uses transportation and ... obviously, they have money because the transportation's being used everyday," Guzman said. "And, the economy's bad."

And, college student Alex Cox of Lake Zurich said, "it may make me think twice about taking the train."

But some passengers found the increase reasonable.

"Costs go up. You can't help it," Pooja Bhatia of Buffalo Grove said. "I've driven to Chicago and driving in two-hour traffic is not something I look forward to. (Metra is) clean. It's comfortable. I think most of us have quite a relaxed commute. Plus, I can fall asleep on the train. Thirty percent is nothing."

"I think they deserve the money," Laura Petry of Woodridge said. "They're not getting the budget from Springfield. They need to do what they need to do to keep the lines running."

The agency has reduced costs by actions such as administrative cuts and locking in diesel fuel at rates of $3.13 and $3.03 per gallon. Metra budgeted $2.30 a gallon on average in 2011 but diesel was at $3.28 a gallon Friday morning. Officials also started cracking down on conductors who don't collect fares, putting undercover observers on trains and appealing to riders to report breaches.

Metra Director Jim LaBelle of Zion said charging riders directly is fair given that people who don't use Metra subsidize the system with sales taxes and through state funding.

"This board is also very aware the taxpayers are a client," LaBelle said. "Everyone who buys something in this region contributes sales tax to support transit."

Clifford faulted former CEO Phil Pagano for "kicking the can down the road," explaining under his leadership Metra borrowed millions from the capital fund, intended for repairs and expansions, to cover the gap in operating costs.

Pagano committed suicide in spring 2010 amid a financial scandal.

"I'd rather it was 5 percent," Board Director Jack Partelow of Naperville said of the rate hike. "No one likes to see an increase. But we have one and we have to live with it. Metra will become boring again."

The Daily Herald reported Monday Metra spent $18 million on overtime in 2010 and $12.6 million on overtime through August 2011.

Clifford said he's holding his department heads accountable for overtime and is studying if hiring workers would be less expensive.

Metra's budget, which directors approved Friday, is about $931 million, with $686.8 million in operating funds and $244 million allocated for capital.

Metra is in a difficult spot, Clifford said, because unlike the Illinois tollway, which is raising tolls Jan. 1 to pay for a building program, it can't promise new trains or system expansion.

But by no longer sucking money out of the capital fund, "this will ensure the trains run on time and locomotives don't break down," Clifford said. "We can provide the service we promise and our customers pay for and expect."

Daily Herald staff reporters Lenore Adkins, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Russell Lissau, and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.

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