Lawmakers aren't embracing Metra fare increases

  • Commuters wait to board an inbound Metra train at the Arlington Heights station. A major fare increase should be coming next year, if leaders of the agency approve.

      Commuters wait to board an inbound Metra train at the Arlington Heights station. A major fare increase should be coming next year, if leaders of the agency approve. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Dan Cronin

    Dan Cronin

  • Karen McConnaughay

    Karen McConnaughay

  • Jack Franks

    Jack Franks

  • Mike Tryon

    Mike Tryon

  • David Harris

    David Harris

 
 
Updated 10/10/2014 6:34 PM

State lawmakers Friday were not ready to climb on board Metra's call for a decade of fare hikes.

Metra's board of directors Thursday announced a sweeping plan to raise tickets and passes by an average of 68 percent over 10 years. The payoff would be more reliable service, officials said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hearings will occur in November when the board is scheduled to vote on a 2015 budget that includes an average 10.8 percent fare spike.

The extra revenues will allow Metra to borrow about $400 million for capital needs including new locomotives and train cars that should help avoid some of the service disruptions caused by last year's polar vortex. The proposal also includes 3 percent cost-of-living increases each year.

"Before there is a decision to raise fares, the first thing is to let us know where you are willing to cut, and they have not articulated that," said state Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat who has been critical of Metra in the past.

But Franks said he was glad Metra was holding hearings to give the public a chance to weigh in.

Rep. Michael Tryon of Crystal Lake thinks "most riders would find the proposed fare increase to be more than they would be willing to absorb."

But he's hopeful, given that the state is retiring some bonds, that a capital plan might materialize and eliminate the need for some of what Metra's asking.

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On the operating side, "a 3 percent increase when the economy is growing at 1 percent generally will not be well-accepted. People think the cost of government should not outstrip the cost of inflation," said Tryon, a Republican.

"I would like to see, perhaps, increases of a smaller amount if they can manage it," Arlington Heights Republican David Harris said.

And if fares go up, Metra should deliver state-of-the-art features such as paperless tickets and Wi-Fi, Harris said.

"If you charge the riders more, you need to provide services they ought to have," he said.

Both Harris and Tryon sit on the House Mass Transit Committee, whose chairman, Al Riley, said Friday he expects to hold hearings on Metra's plan in late November or early December.

"Metra does have some explaining to do," Riley said.

The agency has hurtled through crisis after crisis with the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano in 2010 after misconduct accusations and the exit of CEO Alex Clifford in 2013 after he accused two ex-board chairmen of condoning political patronage.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The scandals ushered in two separate waves of reforms at Metra, but the public is skeptical, said Riley, a Chicago Democrat.

"The riding public ... all of them have to trust you. If they don't trust, they're not going to ride, they're not going to be happy and they're not going to support you," he said.

State Sen. Karen McConnaughay supports the program with some reservations. The St. Charles Republican is the Senate transportation committee's minority spokeswoman.

"I have said for a long time that not having a strategic capital investment vision has been why Metra sees themselves with locomotives dating back to the Eisenhower administration," she said.

But, "is this a responsible plan and can we trust they will get it right and will riders get their money's worth? I want to believe that's what they're trying to do."

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin appointed the one Metra board member -- John Zediker -- who voted present when the board committed to the proposed increases.

"I think there's a lot of substance to what they are discussing and some genuine capital needs," Cronin said.

"The only thing is, I would like to see a little more scrutiny and careful examination of the budget ... pursuing every other avenue. A fare increase should and must be the last alternative."

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