Pyke: Is 10-year plan for Metra hikes justified?

  • Metra leaders want commuters to take a leap of faith when it comes to fare increases.

      Metra leaders want commuters to take a leap of faith when it comes to fare increases. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer, February 2006

 
 
Posted10/20/2014 5:30 AM

A Metra white paper that makes the case for a fare increase, totaling 68 percent compounded over 10 years, contains some interesting numbers.

Although the report features 51 references to capital, 47 mentions of train cars, 34 uses of the word "locomotive" and 47 appearances by the phrase "positive train control," there's just one reference to a proposed 3 percent cost-of-living increase each year for a decade.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're looking at the riders and meeting their demands to have the best service possible, a safe, efficient, comfortable ride," Executive Director Don Orseno said Friday.

Much of the focus as Metra leaders explained their bold financial plan these last few days has been on the tangible things -- $1.2 billion for 367 new train cars, $594.5 million to rebuild 85 locomotives and buy 52 new ones, an estimated $400 million for positive train control (an automatic braking system).

Not so much on the proposed 3 percent for inflation annually, which accounts for more than half the increase over 10 years.

Is it for rising diesel fuel in 2019? For higher salaries in 2021? For chipping ice out of switches come the possible polar vortex of 2023?

Although Metra financial planners can offer precise calibrations of how much one-way, 10-ride and monthly passes would go up each year from 2015 to 2024, specifics are lacking on the rationale for a decade of cost-of-living hikes.

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Spokesman Michael Gillis did explain that Metra took industry averages for diesel fuel spikes into their calculations as well as figuring in raises for union workers and likely increases for nonunion employees.

However, some lawmakers and county leaders were a little wary of built-in assumptions on operating costs.

"When there's a built-in increase, it sometimes competes with an incentive to cut costs and be more creative," DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said. "If every year you get a bump in revenue, I think sometimes it can be a counterproductive influence."

"To have it automatically built-in ... I'm not sure if that is prudent," state Rep. Jack Franks told me.

So Metra ... how do you respond?

"Typically, when you look at things overall, they have a tendency to go up approximately 3 percent," Orseno said. "They might go up a little bit more, they might go up a little bit less. That was the best indicator we had over time that we could use. It's a placeholder, so to speak, of what we think is the right, reasonable approach to a long-term budget."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Asked if the railroad should tighten its belt, Chairman Martin Oberman asked, "what do you want us to do? Buy fewer gallons of diesel fuel (so) then locomotives go only 80 percent down the line?"

"We have an obligation to run the railroad and we have an obligation to run it safely," Oberman said, adding the agency had hired an independent auditor to look for inefficiencies.

"You cannot start cutting back on things if you expect to run the railroad well. We're understaffed as it is in some areas. There's no excess spending going on at Metra that I'm aware of."

It's going to be a lively few weeks as Metra gears up for budget hearings Nov. 6 and 7 and a vote Nov. 14. Tell me what you think at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Your voice

Rider Benjamin Tessler writes, "I don't doubt that the Metra system needs upgrading, new equipment, etc., and it looks as though the Metra folks are talking about a time frame of at least 10 years at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion (for a capital plan). What I don't understand is given the magnitude and length of this project, how is it possible to formulate a rational cost estimate at this point in time?"

Dangerous intersections

The top 10 dangerous intersections for pedestrians in the suburbs?

According to the Active Transportation Alliance, they include: North McCormick Boulevard and West Touhy Avenue in Skokie; South Cicero Avenue and West Cermak Road in Cicero; Route 12 and West Cermak Road in Westchester; Shermer Road and West Dempster Street in Morton Grove; North LaGrange Road and West Ogden Avenue in LaGrange; Harms Road and Glenview Road in Glenview; 1st Avenue and Madison Street in Maywood; North Harlem Avenue and Madison Street in Forest Park/Oak Park; Harlem Avenue and 79th Street in Burbank; and East 147th Street and Halsted Street in Harvey.

Upcoming

Want to attend a budget hearing that won't raise your blood pressure?

Pace, which is not raising fares, can oblige.

The suburban bus agency holds budget hearings from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, at the DuPage County government center, 421 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton; 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, at Pace headquarters, 550 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights; 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, at the Crystal Lake Municipal Complex, 100 W. Woodstock St.; 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 27, at the Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva, and Oct. 30, at the Waukegan Public Library, 128 N. County St.

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