How Metra may fill its budget hole if there's no federal rescue

Service cuts are an option if no federal aid emerges for Metra, Union Pacific employees verifying tickets behind plexiglass creates "a mess," but a massively complicated emergency braking system is good to go.

So says Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski, who's steering the railroad through arguably one of its worst years.

Metra dealt with patronage scandals in 2013 and the CEO's suicide in 2010 after misusing funds, but 2020 brings both ridership tanking up to 90% amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the railroad's dispute with partner UP going volcanic

Currently, Metra faces a $70 million shortfall in 2021, and it's likely the $700 million budget will be approved in November "as unresolved with budgetary actions to be determined," Derwinski said in a Thursday interview.

"If we get to a point later in 2021 and either the federal stimulus hasn't come or ridership is much lower than forecast, we're going to absolutely be at a place where this board's going to have to make decisions to balance the budget.

"Service cuts would be one of the areas we would have to go to," Derwinski explained.

But it's not as simple as yanking a few trains here and there. And Metra is operating on a reduced schedule already with 382 trains per weekday compared to 690 in 2019.

The agency's capital budget is relatively flush after the state increased gas taxes to fund transportation, and Metra expects to use $61.5 million to buy new train cars.

Is it possible to delay those purchases and borrow from the capital fund to cover the operating deficit? The Regional Transportation Authority, which has oversight of Metra, Pace and the CTA, does not allow dipping into capital but things could change if the budget crisis worsens, Derwinski said.

"You have to look at all the options," he noted. "Capital's one of them - but certainly from an operational standpoint - having cars still running around from 1953 and locomotives from 1977" is not ideal.

Layoffs are also a possibility, Derwinski said, but noted Metra is "not filling all jobs right now" as people leave through attrition and retirements.

Last week, Metra sued its partner Union Pacific Railroad, hoping the Cook County circuit court will order the freight carrier's conductors to resume walking the trains and collecting fares. Conductors on Metra-operated and BNSF lines are circulating on trains.

It's not safe during the pandemic for conductors to mingle with passengers, contends UP, which has set up a fare check system at Ogilvie Transportation Center where staff scrutinize tickets behind plexiglass.

That fix is "a mess," Derwinski said. "They're not really validating fares. (Riders) can show their phones as they walk by but nobody's having them touch it (to prove payment). As far as paper tickets go, they're not punching any paper tickets." And if passengers are crammed on platforms waiting for ticket screening, that's counterproductive to social distancing, he said.

UP spokeswoman Kristen South said Friday the new system is working effectively.

Meanwhile, federal law requires U.S. railroads to install an expensive automatic braking system, dubbed Positive Train Control, by the end of 2020.

It's been a struggle for commuter railroads but PTC is operating on all Metra lines, with some final work continuing on Milwaukee District trains. "It looks like we'll hit all of our deadlines on time," Derwinski said.

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