Is Chicago targeting the 'burbs with its fee hikes?
First there was the Illinois Tollway Authority with a decision to nearly double tolls.
Then came word that Metra wants to increase fares roughly 25 percent throughout its system.
And most recently, newly minted Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed nearly doubling water rates for everyone over the next four years and making commuters pay $2 more a day to park in city garages and lots during the workweek.
While only the tollway hike is a sure thing, set to take effect Jan. 1, the other proposals have traction and could go live sometime next year.
All of it means less money in the pockets, purses and wallets of suburban residents.
"I don't know of any concerted effort to target anyone," said Josh Ellis, a project manager for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Metropolitan Planning Council. "The services we are talking about are services consumed throughout the region."
But the hikes are hard for some suburban residents to stomach, considering the benefits to the suburbs are, in some cases, limited. No place is that more evident than with Emanuel's proposed water rate hikes to repair 100-year-old distribution systems in Chicago on the backs of residents in the suburbs who use 30-year-old pipelines.
"Part of the suburban concern is whether these improvements will directly relate to suburban water service," said Joe Fennell, executive director of the Northwest Suburban Municipal Joint Action Water Agency. "We don't know whether or not these water-rate increases will affect the transmission of water to our system. Part of the concern is the size of benefits the city residents receive when 50 percent of the burden is on suburban dwellers."
Fifty percent of the city's water revenue comes from contracts to provide Lake Michigan water to the suburbs, officials said.
From the moment suburban commuters wake up, a shower will be 25 percent more expensive next year if Emanuel gets his way and raises water rates for Chicago as well as scores of suburbs in DuPage and Northwest Cook counties. Fifteen percent hikes in each of the following three years will make that shower 90 percent more expensive in 2015 than it is today.
The average person uses about 3,000 gallons of water a month, according to various water agency calculations. Chicago charges $2.01 for every 1,000 gallons. In the first year, if Emanuel's budget is approved, the average annual price tag for water will go from about $72 per person to $90. That's without any of the municipal or water agency fees tacked on, which often double or triple the price of water.
Another bone of contention among several suburban mayors is that water bills in Chicago are often "guesstimates" because many older buildings in Chicago are not outfitted with water meters. So there's no real way of knowing how much water some buildings are using. The bills are based on occupancy and size.
Now let's go to work. Suburban commuters who drive to work on tollways will have to pay nearly double the amount of tolls after the new year. A driver with I-PASS lucky enough to pass through only one 40-cent toll on the way to work and another on the way back will soon be paying $1.50 for the same round trip.
That's an increase of about $14 for a month of five-day workweeks, or $168 a year, even assuming you get time off totaling four weeks.
The toll hikes will generate enough revenue to cover a $12 billion, 15-year capital improvement program aimed at widening some toll roads, repairing others and building new ones throughout the region.
Now let's park that car. If you work in Chicago, Emanuel has proposed a $2-a-day increase for parking in garages and lots downtown. That's $40 extra a month, or $480 more a year. Commuters who pay for weekly or monthly parking passes would get mild breaks. Emanuel said the price hike would generate about $28 million more a year that would go toward improvements for the CTA, which operates almost entirely in Chicago.
If the increased cost of driving is too much, escaping to Metra is an option, but it, too, is very likely to come at an increased price. The Metra board is looking to fill a $53 million deficit next year by increasing fares on average 25 percent. The fare increases would be higher or lower depending on how far someone is going on the system.
Such rate hikes are enough to push some financially strapped families over the edge, many social service agency heads contend. They worry about raising costs while unemployment levels are high and many workers have gone without raises for years or have seen their wages decrease.
"We've got donors and volunteers who have crossed the aisle and are now using our resources," said Pete Schaefer, president and CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank. "We've got a sizable portion of our clients who are already strapped that have to make decisions about what they are going to do without each day. And now if all these additional costs come up together, they're the ones who will be hurt the most."
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