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Article updated: 11/16/2012 7:20 PM

Metra set to raise cost of 10-ride pass

By Marni Pyke

"Again?" was the unenthusiastic reaction of Metra 10-ride pass users upon learning fares could spike by 11 percent on Feb. 1, 2013.

Metra's board of directors approved raising the price of 10-ride passes by an 8-2 margin Friday, although that decision is subject to a final vote in December.

The hike would follow on the heels of a 30 percent increase in 10-ride passes instituted this February.

Sitting in Union Station on a BNSF Line train bound for Aurora with his 10-ride pass at the ready, Narasi Reddy raised his eyebrows at the news. "Any increase is not good," he said. "What can I say?"

"That's quite a bit," said University of Illinois at Chicago student Martyn Jaquez of Aurora. "They just got done bumping up the fare. It's ridiculous."

Metra aims to secure about $8 million more annually by the move. Of that, $2 million will go toward the proposed $713 million operating budget and $6 million would be designated for capital needs.

Metra's push toward an increase is significant given that fares jumped across the board in February. The average rate hike was 15.7 percent, but 10-ride and monthly pass holders faced bigger hits of 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

"Everyone agrees they don't want an increase, but the more I thought about it -- we need to keep this railroad running in good condition," Director Jack Partelow of Naperville said.

Some officials said it's not so much a fare increase as eliminating an existing discount on 10-ride passes, which provide 10 rides for the price of nine.

Director Mike McCoy of Aurora disagreed. "To try and phrase it as anything other than a fare increase is disingenuous," he said. "We did a drastic fare increase last year. The economy has not recovered ... we owe our customers a year of relief."

However, Director Paul Darley of Elmhurst commented, "I don't think it's a fare increase, it's not going to affect 75 percent of our riders ... it's more of an adjustment to policy. We have to do something and it seems to be the least painful way to go about this."

Director and Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder noted, "I would have preferred no increase but I can support a 10 for 10 -- I am a 10-ride purchaser myself."

Director Jim LaBelle of Zion advocated for a 3 percent across-the-board increase, instead of 11 percent on the backs of 10-ride users. "The concern is if we lose riders, then we're not going to get the $8 million increase," LaBelle said.

Executive Director Alex Clifford said the extra revenues would give the agency leverage in seeking matching federal grants.

"Everything is about capital," he said. "We're trying to provide (Metra) with an opportunity, hopefully, to really compete for some federal dollars."

He also promised squeaky-clean cars, noting riders had requested that in a recent survey. "We're dedicating some of that money to beef up our programs to provide cleaner cars. On the customer-service side, we're looking at creating an ambassador program at our major hub stations to be a bit more user-friendly, particularly to our discretionary customers," Clifford said.

The commuter rail agency provided more than 82.7 million rides in 2011 and administrators estimate 10-pass users comprised one-quarter of that total.

The pass increases would range from $2.75 for a short distance to $9.25 for a long trip. A 10-ride pass between Union Station and Lisle, for example, now costs $47.25. It would go to $52.50. A pass good for trips from Chicago to Harvard that costs $83.25 would jump to $92.50.

Hearings in each of the six metropolitan counties will be held in December. Metra administrators said they'd take steps to avoid stockpiling of passes.

The agency faces a $5 billion shortfall for capital needs over the next 10 years. Another pending expense is installing a Positive Train Control system, estimated to cost $221 million.

Positive Train Control uses technology to warn engineers when a collision is imminent, and the federal government has required commuter and major private railways to implement it by Dec. 31, 2015.

Under a worst-case scenario, if Metra fails to meet that deadline, the government could force trains to run at a devastatingly slow 15 mph.

But administrators said they hoped either obtaining a waiver to extend the deadline or securing aid from the state could avert that.

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