If recent Metra fare hikes are hitting your wallet, you might be able to recoup some of those dollars by winning free rides.
The commuter rail agency will start giving away pairs of tickets starting March 4 in an effort to get more people on its trains. Individuals can enter their names in a contest, and 500 winners will be drawn every Monday for the next 14 weeks.
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Metra seeks to boost ridership by 2 percent in 2013. In 2012, the agency provided nearly 81.3 million rides, down by 1.7 percent compared to 2011. The agency is spending about $390,000 on a marketing campaign that will focus on radio commercials tied in with traffic reports, billboards and social media alerts.
Officials unveiled the slogan "Metra makes life easy" at a Tuesday news conference and touted a recent study by Texas A&M University showing that the average Chicago-area commuter loses 51 hours a year stuck in traffic.
"The truth is, travel by car is highly unpredictable," Metra Executive Director Alex Clifford said, noting that Metra had an average 95.8 percent on-time performance in 2012.
The agency also is appealing to people who are new to the city or drivers in their 20s and 30s. "We need to introduce the next generation of riders to the benefits of public transportation," Clifford said. "We want to recover our ridership losses, and we want to grow the system."
To enter the contest, visit metrarail.com/content/metra/en/home/testdrive/Contest.html. Only one entry is allowed per individual. Winners will receive a special ticket good for two rides anywhere. Tickets are valid for 90 days, and drawings run through June 3.
Asked how certain they were that an untapped market exists, Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran said many people are unfamiliar with the system. "They think it's a hassle, or it's kind of scary or they don't know anything about trains," he said.
Officials said they were certain once people experience a train ride, they will convert to fare-paying customers. As to how the agency will measure the effectiveness of the PR blitz, "in any good marketing campaign, we track the dollars we invest against the outcome and measure it," Clifford said.
The dip in ridership in 2012 is partly related to the hot summer, scaling back of downtown Chicago events and the NATO summit, officials said.
Metra also has raised fares significantly twice in the last two years; rates spiked by 29 percent and 30 percent for monthly and 10-ride pass holders, respectively, in February 2011, and this month 10-ride passes rose by 11 percent.
Other marketing efforts this year will include targeting reverse commuters -- people who travel from the city to the suburbs for jobs.