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Article posted: 8/17/2013 8:01 AM

Metra embracing Ventra, promising no fare increases

Metra leaders tried to get the train back on the tracks Friday after weeks of controversy.

Metra leaders tried to get the train back on the tracks Friday after weeks of controversy.

 

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Metra could end up using the same company as the CTA and Pace to offer a universal fare system, administrators said Friday.

The two agencies will roll out the Ventra fare system for all riders in September, earlier than a 2015 deadline set by state lawmakers. The change is supposed to allow passengers to transfer seamlessly between CTA and Pace and also allows the use of credit cards for getting on buses and trains.

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Metra's lagged behind its sister agencies, previously insisting that its open system -- where passengers walk onto trains and fares are collected later -- made a transition extremely complicated.

Now, "we are jumping on board with Ventra," Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins said. "We've got some bugs to work out on the back end, but we've got staff working on that now."

The "bugs" include finding a hand-held device conductors can use to accept credit cards and Ventra on trains, Wiggins said.

Friday was Metra's first meeting of the board since controversy blew up over former CEO Alex Clifford's up-to $718,000 separation agreement approved in June and allegations he made regarding misconduct by two high-ranking directors who've since resigned.

Other topics included:

• Budgets. Although rider revenues have declined, budget planners said preliminary indications are a fare increase isn't necessary in 2014. Passengers were hit with two significant hikes in 2012 and 2013. "We'll look at what efficiencies we can achieve across the system," Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said.

However, administrators said they were concerned the Regional Transportation Authority isn't giving the agency any so-called "discretionary funding" for capital projects this year, which it has in the past.

That funding will go to Pace and the CTA, instead. Last year, the three agencies squared off in a turf battle over the discretionary dollars.

Also, officials said they would continue to study if it makes sense to roll back an unpopular increase in 10-ride passes instituted early this year.

• Wi-Fi. Despite no takers in previous attempts, administrators intend to ask the private sector if there's any interest in paying for free Wi-Fi on trains. The costs for Metra have been projected as prohibitive, estimates show. The agency could pay up to $50,000 for its consultants to solicit bids from interested partners. At least one other transit agency in the country has successfully partnered with a cable company to offer Wi-Fi, Wiggins said.

• Delays. Metra is meeting with BNSF Railroad officials to try to solve some of the chronic delays that hit the popular line this summer, Deputy Executive Director for Operations Don Orseno said.

Officials also tried to reassure the public and staff who've weathered weeks of scandal.

"There's a good service out there. The expense is not unreasonable, and we're going to keep it that way as long as we can. We've got a great staff," Acting Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said.

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