Is it time to cap Metra fare hikes?
"Oh, the good old days of 2011, when a 10-ride Metra pass to the city cost only $36.55," I thought as I forked over $52.50 to the ticket agent last week.
Metra monthly and 10-ride passes rose by about 29 percent in early 2012, and 10-rides shot up another 11 percent this February.
I'm not the only one regretting higher fares. Ten-ride purchases dipped 14 percent in February, leading a few Metra board directors to ponder reversing course -- which isn't likely to happen.
Meanwhile, Board Director Mike McCoy of Aurora, who cast the only vote against the 11 percent fare hike, saying it was too arbitrary, has another idea to prevent big spikes in the future.
He's proposing that any future fare increases be tied to government or railroad industry price indexes. The idea would work similarly to the property tax cap that prevents local governments from raising taxes beyond the consumer price index.
"This would give us market-driven data," McCoy said, adding the agency should cap itself "out of respect for our customers."
Most of his colleagues at a finance committee meeting Friday said the idea had merit but offered caveats.
"In theory I agree, but there are variables," Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said. "What if the state takes our tax money away, or Washington doesn't extend the deadline for positive train control?" he asked referring to an expensive safety system.
"I agree with the concept ... but I don't want to tie our hands," Director and South Holland Village President Don DeGraff said.
For discussion purposes, Metra financial planners calculated that an average of railroad and government price indexes over a period of time could provide a rationale for a 5.7 percent increase in a given year.
McCoy, a former Kane County Board chairman, hopes to persuade the full board to adopt his plan at a May 17 meeting. By that time, however, state lawmakers may have put their own stamp on the issue.
The Illinois House in April passed a measure requiring any Metra fare increase proposal to go before hearings of the House Mass Transit Committee and Senate Transportation Committee.
"I think the opportunity for more public hearing and more public input is always a desirable goal," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat.
Senators are expected to discuss the bill in committee Tuesday.
Metra officials had no comment on the measure, but state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican who sits on the Transportation Committee, pinch-hit.
"I never believed that the General Assembly -- for a lot of reasons -- should micromanage mass transit," Dillard said. "While it's fair for us to have oversight ... you have a board of directors of Metra and fare increases are in their purview, not ours."
State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a St. Charles Republican and minority spokeswoman on the Transportation Committee, concurred. "I don't think that's the role of the General Assembly," she said. Instead, McConnaughay backs McCoy's proposal for a formula-based method to determine prices. "People want a fare structure that's fair," she said.
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'What the heck is wrong?'
Meanwhile at Metra, the leadership situation keeps getting weirder. Meetings now have a dysfunctional, Thanksgiving-dinner-with-relatives-you-can't-stand vibe.
As reported previously, Chief Executive Officer Alex Clifford's contract is up for renewal in February, but he faces an uphill battle. One disconnect came during meetings Clifford held with some individual board members to discuss his contract, at which allegations involving potential hiring and personnel improprieties surfaced, McCoy said and other officials confirmed.
Those allegations are now the subject of an investigation by the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General.
Clifford enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon period after taking over in 2011 from former CEO and power broker Phil Pagano, who killed himself in 2010 amid a probe into financial misconduct.
But Clifford came under fire last summer when South Side Chicago residents and lawmakers accused Metra of ignoring minority contractors. There have also been policy differences on fare increases, employee compensation, implementation of positive train control and a universal fare card with Pace and the CTA.
The CEO issue has fractured the board with some like Schaffer calling the atmosphere "toxic" and accusing Chairman Brad O'Halloran of pushing Clifford out. O'Halloran has refused comment.
So how does the family feud affect commuters?
"It's not the best of circumstances, but I think the agency is very professional," board director and outgoing Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder said. "We know it's important to get riders where they want to go and keep the trains on time."
Former Metra Director Jim LaBelle noted that "if any board and their CEO disagree on the partnership, it's a tough situation. I think Alex is a professional, and the staff is professional, and they have every intention of intending to perform at the top level."
Others, including Dillard, said internal discord is unhealthy.
"I can't believe we're going through another leadership crisis at Metra -- what the heck is wrong?" Dillard asked.
"Metra is the lifeblood of the suburbs, and it's crucial for the downtown business community. But we're continually having breakdowns at the top. Is there something wrong with the way our board is composed? As one who has ridden Metra constantly, it's still a great system, but it used to be perfect ... we should settle for nothing less."
Clifford gets a salary of $252,500 a year and officials confirmed there is talk of a financial settlement.
But Clifford says he wants to stay. "My goal is to have my contract extended because I believe I have done a good job for Metra," he said via email.
Jerry Thompson has lived in Roselle for 34 years, one block south of the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway. "I'm not very happy with the plan to make it a tollway," Thompson wrote.
"Most people that I've talked with in the area will not use the tollway and will continue to use Lake Street, Irving Park Road, Nerge Road, Wise Road, and Devon Avenue to get here and there. It will make those roads more crowded, but it will skip the tolls. What you might see in the evening rush hour is major backups in Hanover Park where the road ends at Lake Street as they never finished the road to Elgin. So at least I'll be saving my 20 cents a mile for something else."
May 15 marks the annual Ride of Silence to honor cyclists killed or injured while biking on public roads. Events across the suburbs start at 7 p.m. with rides occurring in Bartlett, Arlington Heights, Downers Grove, Geneva and McHenry. To learn more, go to http://www.rideofsilence.org/locations.
And this week's construction nightmare is in ... West Dundee. IDOT reports that widening on Route 72 and improvements to its intersection with Route 31 starts today. The work will require lane closures through November. To learn more about 2013 road work, go to http://www.dot.state.il.us/.
Good & bad newsGas prices are on the rise in May, AAA reports, noting that Illinois boasts the highest rates in the nation. Costs for a gallon of regular average $4.06 in Cook, $3.90 in DuPage, $3.87 in Lake, and $3.86 in Kane counties. However, a Memorial Day weekend getaway by air is 2 percent cheaper than in 2012, Travelocity reports.