Despite a fare increase that began today to avert a budget shortfall, Metra's CEO is warning that an even greater financial hurdle lies ahead -- finding $5 billion to keep the system in good repair.
"The challenge ahead is how to get that $5 billion of investment to put into the six-county region," Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford said Tuesday in a speech to the City Club of Chicago.
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Although the average rate hike is 15.7 percent, 10-ride and monthly pass holders face bigger hits of 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
The increase was instituted to cover rising diesel fuel costs and more expensive insurance premiums and to compensate for previous financial mismanagement that included borrowing from the capital fund to pay for day-to-day operations.
By not raiding the capital fund every year, Metra will free up about $60 million annually that can be used for maintaining its trains, repairing track and signals, fixing up stations and other infrastructure needs.
But it's not enough, Clifford noted. To keep the commuter system in good repair will cost $7.4 billion over 10 years. The federal government is expected to provide about $2 billion in funding, leaving a $5 billion shortfall.
The agency will issue a list of capital priorities later this year that Metra officials will use to make its financial case to state and federal lawmakers. The focus will be on improving safety and repairing existing equipment and infrastructure, meaning new projects and expansions will be a lower priority.
Ignoring basic maintenance needs would mean "more trains breaking down, late trains, canceled service and longer travel times," Clifford said.
"It's not glamorous, but it's the lifeblood of our system. When elected officials look at funding agencies, transit agencies in particular, they look at new things -- new stations, new lines, things that mean ribbon cuttings. We have to recondition our elected officials, and the challenge is, How do you build excitement around a state of good repair?" Clifford said.
Many commuters, however, see the new fees as a burden, and they are disappointed the agency couldn't cut costs more.
"I am quite appalled by the Metra rate increases," Bartlett resident Jim Giordano said. "I have taken Metra while working downtown and was happy with their service."
But Giordano added he thinks the agency is not controlling salary and pension expenses and that it will seek further increases in the near future. "I feel that there has been severe mismanagement at Metra for years and the commuters are being asked to pay for this big-time," he said via email.
Board directors acknowledged the fare hike was painful but noted a survey showed riders preferred higher fees to the alternative of cutting train service. Director Jack Schaffer of Cary cited one rider who told him, "I want to know I can get out of Chicago any time of the day. If one of my kids gets sick, if there's a car accident, I want to be able to leave -- don't cut anything."
"If we want to keep the trains running on time -- we had to do it," Schaffer said.
"It's a tough time to incur a significant increase, but they've all driven and had to pay for parking (downtown)," Metra Director and Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder said. Without the increase "there would have been significant cuts because we had to balance the budget. People are accepting of that because they want the trains there."