Metra asks for 68 percent fare hike over 10 years
Although a final vote isn't until November, a majority of Metra leaders Thursday committed to a proposal to raise fares an average of 10.8 percent in 2015 followed by increases averaging 4.8 percent in each of the next nine years in exchange for the promise of better, more reliable service.
The agency wants riders to pay a range of increases, with monthly passes spiking the most by up to 19 percent for adults in 2015, if approved.
Over 10 years, passengers would pay an average of 68 percent more.
It would help pay for a $2.4 billion capital plan that includes buying 367 new rail cars and 52 new locomotives plus rehabbing 455 cars and 85 locomotives. The proposed fare hike also allows for a 3 percent cost of living increase every year.
A resolution that passed with 10 votes and one "present" by Director John Zediker of Naperville states the board is "committed" to the projected increases and directs Metra's staff to immediately undertake preparations to purchase cars and locomotives.
The fare hike is "not a done deal," Chairman Martin Oberman said, adding, however, that the point of the resolution was to let passengers know upfront that he at least thinks it's the right thing to do. "We're going on record saying, 'This is what we need.'"
Riders can voice their opinions at eight hearings set for Nov. 5 and 6. A vote on the 2015 budget is set for Nov. 14. Oberman noted that future fare hikes will also need approval each year.
Reaction was swift among suburban Metra riders.
"I think that's outrageous," longtime daily rider John O'Toole of Mundelein said. "They need to cut costs. The easiest way to do that is fix the pension problem. The (train) cars are fine."
Student Joseph Hudson of Bolingbrook pays $10.50 round trip twice a week and says he can't afford an increase. "The cars are in pretty good shape, but I'm struggling just to keep up and I still have to pay for school," he said.
Corinne Meyer of Gurnee said a fare hike should bring more services.
"Obviously, the cost is inevitable. But I wouldn't mind it so much if they included something to add a little luxury, like Wi-Fi and coffee, just to make it a better experience." She suggests space at Union Station in Chicago is underused and could bring in revenue.
Some said they would drive or make their way to the nearest CTA station for their commute. Metra anticipates the fare hike would bring a 1.1 percent drop in ridership.
If it's approved, daily one-way fares would increase between 50 cents and $1 in 2015.
A monthly pass holder traveling a short distance would see a spike of 19 percent, but the same person traveling from Chicago to Lisle or Arlington Heights would pay $171 instead of $150, a 14 percent bump.
Monthly passes would increase from $164 to $185 for riders between Chicago and Palatine, Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Schaumburg, Hanover Park, Bartlett, Winfield, West Chicago and Naperville. That amounts to $2,220 for a year-round rider.
Monthly fares would hit or exceed $200 for riders between Chicago and Barrington, Vernon Hills, Geneva and points beyond. Riders boarding at Fox River Grove, Cary, Libertyville, Elgin and Aurora would pay $214; those getting on in Crystal Lake, Grayslake, Round Lake and Elburn would pay $235.
Ten-ride pass holders would get a break in 2015 because they were targeted in 2013 when Metra enacted an 11 percent increase just on 10-rides. Someone traveling from Chicago to Lisle or Arlington Heights who pays $52.50 now would be charged $54 in 2015 for 10 rides.
Metra proposes more fare hikes every year through 2024. Big hits are expected in 2017 with an 8.5 percent fare jump, in 2019 with 7.75 percent, and in 2022 with a 5.75 percent bump.
Borrowing to pay for the new cars and locomotives and a federally mandated automatic braking system account for the spikes. Metra pegs the braking system at $400 million.
A few years ago, "it cost $150 million. Now it's $400 million. We need to move before it's $600 million," said Metra board Director Jack Partelow of Naperville.
"I'm certainly sensitive to raising the rates," Director and Hanover Park Mayor Rodney Craig said. But the 10-year phase-in should lead to a "functional Metra organization that's run effectively instead of on-the-fly," he said.
Zediker, however, said passing the resolution before the hearings was premature. "I'm not completely sold and I'm not sure the public is going to be sold," he said.
Metra intends to borrow $400 million for the program and estimates it will receive about $710 million from federal and state sources. That leaves a $1.3 billion gap in its modernization plan, which leaders hope will be filled in by grants and other sources.
"We're asking the riders to pay a portion of it," Oberman said. He said passengers' share of the capital plan will be about 16 percent.
Zediker added he wanted to hear more about contingency plans if the agency doesn't reach its $2.4 billion capital goal.
Metra was under fire throughout 2013 for a political corruption scandal and in early 2014 after the so-called polar vortex was blamed for breakdowns, delays, canceled trains and passengers stranded on open platforms in temperatures below zero.
Snow getting stuck in faulty train car doors, aging wiring, and brake repairs all contributed to slowdowns. Another irritant for commuters was the fact Metra pulled cars from trains for repairs, meaning crowded conditions in January on some lines.
Thursday morning, an outbound train broke down in Melrose Park, causing cancellations and delays on the Union Pacific West Line.
Officials used those trials as an argument to justify the increases, saying Metra's previous leaders failed to raise fares regularly and that led to outdated equipment that's only getting worse.
"When (riders) get on the train they should have every expectation it's going to be on time, it's going to be safe, it's going to be comfortable," Executive Director Don Orseno said. "If you don't fund it, that won't happen."
Metra Chief Transportation Officer Marty Ryan said 359 rail cars are 30 to 60 years old. Brittle wires on vintage electrical equipment means repairs can take a day, he said. "We could do similar jobs on new cars in 45 minutes," he said.
On older locomotives, breakdowns are expensive, officials said. For example, a failed piston on a locomotive cost $35,000 for parts and 180 hours of labor to fix.
"The quicker we retire the fleet, the quicker the problem will go away," Ryan said.
New equipment means "the trains will absolutely be more reliable," Orseno said. "Does that mean we'll never have problems? No."
To sweeten the plan, Metra would extend a grace period on monthly tickets so they are valid on the first weekday of the new month until noon and accept one-way tickets for 90 days instead of 14.
However, the popular weekend pass for unlimited rides Saturday and Sunday would rise from $7 to $8 and fees for buying tickets on trains would go up from $3 to $5.
Daily Herald Reporter Jake Griffin contributed to this story.
Public hearings on fare hikes4-7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 5
• Community room, Hanover Park Police Department, 2011 W. Lake St., Hanover Park
• Building A, 1st floor auditorium, Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva
• Board room, Mundelein Village Hall, 300 Plaza Circle, Mundelein
• Board room, Homewood Village Hall, 2020 Chestnut Road, Homewood
4-7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6• Board room, Clarendon Hills Village Hall, 1 N. Prospect Ave., Clarendon Hills
• Council chambers, Woodstock Village Hall, 121 N. Calhoun St., Woodstock
• Board room, 2nd floor, Will County Office Building, 302 N. Chicago St., Joliet
• Board room, Metra, 547 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago