Metra OKs service cuts, fare hikes - and will more come next year?

Metra directors approved fare hikes today of up to 12.6 percent, along with service cuts on routes such as the North Central Service that will start in February 2018.

It's the fourth year of higher tickets for riders, coming on the heels of a cumulative average 18.6 percent increase from 2015 to 2018.

Metra leaders say the railroad has no choice given a $45 million shortfall they attributed to funding cuts and growing expenses.

And some board directors warned it could get worse.

"My fear, if revenue continues to be lost and the state does not reinstate and improve our revenue - additional cuts will occur within the coming year," Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said.

Many riders aren't happy, including Hal Phillips of Arlington Heights. "I understand there might be a need for an increase, but it seems excessive," he 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.

Another $15 million is a result of cuts in state aid, government fees and lackluster sales tax receipts.

Metra's operating budget, which includes salaries and equipment, is $797 million in 2018 compared to $781 million in 2017, in spite of service cuts.

"Given the poor financial condition of the state, we are required to cut back in multiple ways," Craig said. "Service cuts are serious impacts; however, rail lines that are not performing will be reduced where it makes sense."

Director John Zediker of Naperville said board members had rejected even higher fare increases at a September meeting.

He said he thinks "people are very appreciative of the service they get from the BNSF and Union Pacific and realize it's a good value" but want something tangible back, like new train cars on the BNSF.

"There's going to be price sensitivity," Zediker acknowledged. "You can't raise fares ad nauseam before ridership eventually drops.

Chairman Norman Carlson said the agency had trimmed its budget by more than $20 million.

"We've done a tremendous job of controlling costs," he said.

Fare increases go into effect Feb. 1, 2018. Service reductions will start Feb. 5 and mean 11 fewer trains and a loss of six crew members through attrition.

Here's a look at the changes.

• On the NCS between Antioch and Chicago, two rush-hour trains will be eliminated and rolled into two other semi-express trains in the morning and afternoon.

• On the Milwaukee North Line, which runs between Fox Lake and Chicago, service will scale back to 20 trips instead of 24 on Saturdays and 18 trains instead of 20 on Sunday.

• On the Rock Island Line serving the south suburbs, three trains will be eliminated.

• The cost of 10-ride passes will go up from 8 percent to 12.6 percent; a rider charged $58.50 now will pay $64.25 to travel between Chicago and Arlington Heights or Lisle (Zone E).

• A one-way ticket will be 25 cents higher in all zones.

• Weekend passes will grow to $10 from $8. The board will discuss extending passes to start on Friday evenings at its next meeting.

Commuters interviewed at the Arlington Heights Metra station were concerned.

"The equipment is so old, (there is) freight train interference, switching problems, signal problems constantly," rider Sharon Walker of Arlington Heights said. "The trains are filthy ... and they want you to pay more. It's just frustrating."

Amartya Bagchi of Wheeling understands that "with Metra they have to worry about the infrastructure. ... It's a pretty old system so they have good reason to make sure everything runs on time. But sometimes I worry whether the money is actually spent on making sure commuters get where they need to go on time."

Friday was Director Steven Messerli of Aurora's first meeting, but he described the agency as being in "dire straits" and on an "unsustainable" financial path.

Directors Ken Koehler of Crystal Lake said shorting the capital budget is "robbing Peter to pay Paul on some very serious items. When people say it's too much of an increase - none of us want this - but if you want to ride on safe, dependable trains this is part of it."

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  A Chicago-bound Metra express train rolls through the Arlington Heights station. The Metra board voted Friday to increase fares up to 12.6 percent. Joe Lewnard/
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