Metra: More fare hikes, service reductions possible
The state's fragile budget could haunt Metra with possible service reductions and fare increases, officials said Wednesday.
In 2018, "we are ramping up for a very challenging budget year," Chief Financial Officer Thomas Farmer said. "The combination of funding cuts and slowing sales taxes will put a lot of pressure on the 2018 budget. We will have to put everything on the table."
Despite objections from Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democrats with aid from some Republicans overrode his veto and passed a budget July 6.
Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority are still analyzing the numbers but expect reductions in funding.
Another looming problem is sluggish sales tax revenues, which help pay for public transit.
"For Metra, the most important thing is cash flow," Chairman Norm Carlson said. "Cash flow is king, and we need to understand what the cash flow will and will not be."
The bitter political gridlock in Springfield shows no signs of stopping, which adds continuing uncertainty, officials said. They noted the state budget lasts from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, while Metra operates on a calender year.
The state was without a budget for the last two years, resulting in a backlog of unpaid bills and slow payments to agencies such as Metra.
Director John Plante warned that one "elephant in the room" was potential service reductions.
Executive Director Don Orseno said a "doomsday budget" scenario was overstating the case. "Right now it doesn't look very promising ... but it's too early to tell," he said.
Asked about possible fare increases, Orseno said those would be considered but the railroad still has to prepare its budget.
In the meantime, Metra has instituted a quasi-freeze on hiring and new purchase orders unless absolutely necessary.
The agency has raised fares the last three years, partly to help pay for capital needs.