Metra riders greeted the fourth fare increase in as many years with glum faces and wishes for improved service even as agency leaders warn more pain could come if aid doesn't materialize.
Hikes of up to 12.6 percent instituted today will mean one-way tickets jump by a quarter, 10-ride passes are up $4.25 to $7.75 and monthly passes rise from $9 to $12.50.
"Ridiculous" is how BNSF Line regular Dan Yedinak of Naperville characterized the move Wednesday at the Lisle station. "The trains are rarely on time, they're always broken down and overcrowded."
At Union Station Tuesday, Jane Tannenbaum, who takes the North Central Service between downtown and Prospect Heights daily, finds Metra's "service is good." But "everything's going up, and our salaries are remaining the same," she said.
Fares shot up in 2015 after Metra unveiled a 10-year capital improvement plan. But that's been scaled back as the agency focuses on covering operating costs and keeping equipment repaired.
"Who would be happy about it? There's been no improvements," North Central Service rider Sharon Bugajski said en route to Wheeling. "They've been raising (fares) regularly now, but everything's still broken."
Raising fares in 2018 will bring in about $17 million. But Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said yearly increases "haven't generated nearly enough revenue to make up for our funding shortfalls, and therefore not nearly enough revenue to address all our needs, and that it not going to change with this year's increase."
Bob Doucet is in the third year of commuting from Plainfield, and "it's the third year in a row with fares going up, and nothing seems to get fixed."
Yedinak and his employees are so frustrated with "standing in the aisles all the way to the city," he's moving his business from Chicago to Oak Brook. "It's more beneficial to move out to the suburbs," he said.
The higher fares are coupled with service reductions to lines such as the North Central Service that go into effect Monday. The move was intended to bridge a projected $45 million deficit in the 2018 budget.
"Now they're combining trains so it's going to be more crowded," Tannenbaum said.
About $30 million of Metra's shortfall is caused by higher costs, including about $23 million attributable to employee-related expenses such as salaries, which are going up by an average of 3 percent. About $15 million is a result of cuts in state aid, government fees and lackluster sales tax receipts.
Service cuts will occur on the NCS, Milwaukee District North, SouthWest Service and Rock Island lines equating to 11 fewer trains and a loss of six crew members through attrition. The North Central Service will lose two rush-hour trains that will be rolled into others in the morning and afternoon. The two morning trains that will be combined had 11 cars in total; the two afternoon trains had nine.
"We plan to operate the combined train in each rush hour with nine cars. Based on (customer) counts, we think that will be sufficient to avoid overcrowding," Gillis said.
Leo Simmons, who takes the NCS back and forth from Lake Villa, said he's seen low ridership on Thursdays and Fridays. "I understand they've got to make up some of that," he said.
But fellow rider Alex Selsky of Buffalo Grove said that "it's crazy." A monthly pass for him 10 years ago was about $128. "Now it's $210," he said. "When it's winter, there's always some problem and it's not reliable."
The railroad is seeking proposals to buy new locomotives and railcars, but "our funding situation will not allow us to order as many as we need as quickly as we need them," Gillis said. "The state has not passed a new capital program since 2009 and reduced by $265 million the amount we expected from that program."
Metra also is paying more for a federally mandated automatic braking program.
• Staff photographer Daniel White contributed to this report.