Metra up to full steam, facing financial crossroads
New board directors at Metra, up to full strength after an exodus this summer, waded into funding issues Friday after a budget presentation that projected no fare increases.
Four new directors joined the 11-member board including Lemont Mayor Brian Reaves, who was chosen by Cook County commissioners on Thursday. Scandal rocked Metra this summer with former CEO Alex Clifford's allegations of misconduct against two top board members. They resigned along with three others.
Metra's proposed budget for 2014 is $935.9 million, comprising $207.3 million for capital projects and $728.6 million for operating costs, of which about 60 percent is for salaries. The operating budget is 1.7 percent higher than 2013's $716.6 million version.
Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said it's not necessary to raise fares in 2014, noting that an increase in sales tax revenues should help offset a decline in ridership.
Metra ridership took a hit when the agency eliminated a nine rides for 10 deal on passes this February, Director Norm Carlson of Lake Forest said.
"We took a benefit away from our riders," Carlson said, "some went to tickets with a 30 percent discount (monthly passes) and others said 'goodbye.'"
The budget presentation occurred two days after the Regional Transportation Authority finalized what it will offer the CTA, Metra and Pace in so-called "discretionary funds." The pot of about $180 million discretionary dollars comes from sales taxes and was the subject of a turf war this fall between the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra, which traditionally doesn't get those funds.
Metra had argued that as sales taxes increase with the growing economy, it deserves a share of the pie. The agency lost that battle but will receive $2 million from another RTA fund.
However, the interagency friction took its toll.
"I'm not against the CTA," Director Jack Schaefer of Cary said, but added "if we don't get our fair share, this board will be voting on another fare increase." Metra also hiked fares in 2012.
"The real goal of the board isn't 'us versus them' ... but we have an obligation to run Metra as well as we can," Director Martin Oberman of Chicago said.
Former Arlington Heights Mayor and Director Arlene Mulder requested data on what percentage of sales taxes come from Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties. "We could see if there's equity in the distribution," she said.
• Also Friday, Metra planners announced they hope to start a pilot project allowing riders to pay fares with smartphones, I-Pads, contactless bank, credit or Ventra cards on trains. It's part of a transition to a universal fare program where passengers can transfer seamlessly between Metra, Pace and the CTA.
Pace and the CTA have already started offering a joint fare system dubbed Ventra that uses contactless cards people can tap when entering buses or stations.
Metra is expected to piggyback onto the Ventra system but also needs to purchase devices that allow conductors to process tickets on board trains.
However, the agency will keep its traditional ticketing.
"Ventra will be layered on," Senior Director Lynette Ciavarella said. "If someone wants a paper ticket, they can have it."
• Besides Reaves, CTA manager Romayne Brown, retired CTA attorney John Plante and attorney Oberman, a former Chicago alderman, participated in their first board meeting Friday. Reaves is CEO of Integrated Warehouse Systems and a transportation committee member on the Southwest Suburban Conference of Mayors.
Last month, John Zediker, a Naperville transportation planner, and retired federal Judge Manuel Barbosa of Elgin started on the board.