Metra riders not onboard with fare hike

Just a few riders showed up to Metra's hearing on a proposed fare hike at the Clarendon Hills village hall Thursday.

Among them was retiree Bob Wayman of Downers Grove, who travels to Chicago on Metra's BNSF Line twice a month. Metra service is “among the best in the country,” he said.

“The fare increase is an intelligent way to plan for future needs.”

Outside, the vibe wasn't as positive. Riders hurried from rush-hour trains in downtown Clarendon Hills, intent on getting home.

Some, like commuter T.J. Han, were unaware there was a meeting scheduled where they could voice displeasure with increases to a range of Metra products like monthly passes, which could spike by about 14 percent in 2015.

“They just raised fares two years ago,” said Han.

Metra leaders are expected to vote Nov. 14 on whether to approve the 2015 budget, which includes an average hike of 10.8 percent.

Hearings on the issue were held this week.

The agency is also contemplating raising fares by an average of 4.8 percent each year from 2016 to 2024 in exchange for the promise of better, more reliable service.

Metra wants riders to pay a range of higher rates, with monthly passes spiking the most by up to 19 percent for adults in 2015, if approved. Ten-ride passes would see only a slight uptick.

Passengers would pay an average of 68 percent more, compounded.

The move would help pay for a $2.4 billion capital plan that includes buying 367 new rail cars and 52 new locomotives plus rehabbing 455 cars and 85 locomotives.

However, about $1.3 billion of that capital program is unfunded.

The proposed fare hike also allows for a 3 percent cost-of-living increase every year.

One somewhat unusual part of Metra's plan is to borrow $21 million in 2015 and $47 million in 2016 to pay for Positive Train Control, a federally mandated automatic braking system.

The loan and interest payments would be funded through fares.

By comparison, several of Metra's peer commuter rail agencies on the East Coast are receiving greater state and federal aid to subsidize PTC's expenses.

Among those questioning the need for fare spikes is state Rep. Tom Morrison, himself a Metra user.

The Palatine Republican thinks the millions of dollars allocated for high-speed rail, including the state's Chicago-to-St. Louis route, would be better spent on Metra infrastructure.

No one disagrees Metra needs to update its equipment, Morrison said.

“But before they run off and dramatically raise fares, why not take a critical look at federal and state money given to high-speed rail? They should not punish Metra riders twice by siphoning off precious tax dollars for a white elephant,” Morrison said, adding he doesn't believe the number of people using high-speed rail in Illinois will justify the expense.

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