Editorial: Metra still has much selling to do on fare-hike plan
There are some positive things to say about the plan Metra announced last week to increase fares in support of a systematic and thorough program to upgrade and maintain the trains.
Metra administrators clearly are moving toward more thoughtful and predictable management of the system's physical assets, and they're aiming for more responsible operations financially as well. With eight public hearings scheduled before the board makes a final vote in mid-November and the release of reams of documents about the need and payment plan, Metra also appears to be making a sincere effort to keep commuters informed. They're clearly not trying to sneak in a 10.8 percent fare increase with annually compounded additions averaging almost 5 percent.
That sincerity is part of what makes it hard to condemn the proposal outright. As board chairman Martin Oberman flatly stated, "We're going on record saying, 'This is what we need.'"
The trouble is, it's a lot of need -- $2.4 billion worth, to be covered by a creative, and hopeful, mix of $400 million in borrowing, $710 million in as-yet-unsecured state and federal aid and $1.3 billion in somewhat mystical "grants and other sources." With the sour taste of recent years of Metra management debacles still in our mouths, it's not easy to take on faith the word of mostly new Metra leadership about the condition of the railroad's locomotives and passenger cars or about their own ability to assess and improve it.
"I'm not completely sold and I'm not sure the public is going to be sold," said DuPage County's John Zediker, the lone board member declining to vote in favor of a preliminary measure authorizing the program.
State lawmakers aren't sold yet, either. They plan hearings in late November and rightly expect some specific answers. State Sen. Karen McConnaughay, a St. Charles Republican and member of the Illinois Senate transportation committee, put the issues in focus.
"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 told Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke. "(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."
So do we. But we also want Metra's new directors to remember the lessons of the past four years spent alternately giving administrators too much control and then snarling a new regime in tawdry politics. Board members must dig deeply and critically into the details and impact of this plan. They have much learning -- and after that perhaps even more selling -- still to do.