Pyke: Could extra transit funding prevent Metra hike?

  • Commuters wait to board an inbound Metra train at the Arlington Heights station. A major fare increase could be coming next year, if leaders of the agency approve, but could it have been avoided with better transit funding?

      Commuters wait to board an inbound Metra train at the Arlington Heights station. A major fare increase could be coming next year, if leaders of the agency approve, but could it have been avoided with better transit funding? Joe LewnARD | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted10/27/2014 5:30 AM

Just days remain before the Nov. 4 election. If you're a Metra rider, here's one reason you might want to talk transit funding with the state and federal candidates running in your districts: Among the justifications for steep fare increases proposed by Metra leaders is the need to pay for an automatic braking system known as positive train control.

The safety system will cost around $408 million. And up to $68 million of that would come straight from riders' pockets if Metra's board approves the fare hikes in November.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Congress mandated positive train control in 2008 after a tragic crash in California and set a deadline for the end of 2015.

Other commuter railroads across the nation are stuck with massive bills for PTC, but their passengers aren't facing quite such a direct hit as Metra riders.

Instead, a combination of long-term planning and more generous funding from state and federal sources (here's where the election comes in) are sparing commuters elsewhere from fronting as big a share of PTC costs.

"Metra riders are paying the price of a state that's turned a blind eye to capital or mass transit investment," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said Friday.

"We had hoped the state's pension problem would be fixed and the state could turn to a capital program. It hasn't played out the way we hoped," added Schwieterman, who heads DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.

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With Metra's PTC program, about 36 percent of funding comes from the state, 33 percent comes from the federal government, 14 percent comes from the Regional Transportation Agency and 17 percent would come from riders.

Here's what three transit agencies that Metra considers its peers are doing to pay for PTC:

• The Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees the Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad serving New York and Connecticut. It estimates PTC will cost $1.2 billion.

About 80 percent ($967 million) comes from a low-interest loan through a Federal Railroad Administration program. That will be repaid through a combination of state taxes and fares, plus tolls on bridges and tunnels. Then, 12 percent ($145 million) is funded from the state of Connecticut and 8 percent ($96.8 million) comes from federal grants.

The MTA imposes fare increases every two years, which are not specific to PTC but cover inflation and other expenses, like paying debt. The most recent hike was 4 percent.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The PTC issue hit home for MTA in December 2013, when a speeding Metro-North train derailed going around a curve in the Bronx, killing four.

• NJ Transit handles rail, buses and light rail transit in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. The agency approved spending $225 million for PTC in 2011, spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said.

The funding is included in the agency's long-range capital plan, which is funded by the state and the federal government.

• Philadelphia's SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, provides commuter rail, buses and trolleys over five counties. Meeting the federal mandate will cost SEPTA about $320 million, SEPTA's Deputy General Manager Jeff Knueppel said.

Overall, federal funding covers 80 percent of the $320 million and the remaining 20 percent comes from state and local sources. The state passed a substantial capital plan recently, officials said.

Fingers crossed, SEPTA is on track to make the 2015 deadline, Knueppel said.

Metra is proposing a $2.4 billion capital program that includes: borrowing $21 million in 2015 and $47 million in 2016 for PTC; new rail cars and locomotives; and an annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase over 10 years. For riders, that means a projected fare spike of up to 68 percent compounded over 10 years.

Metra has noted that its fares are lower than peers such as SEPTA, the MTA and NJ Transit, and previous administrations failed to keep up with inflation.

Without riders chipping in, the agency couldn't pay for PTC, officials said.

"We have our estimate for what our PTC costs are going to be, and we have our estimate for what revenues we can reasonably expect to receive from traditional sources for all our capital needs, including PTC," spokesman Michael Gillis said.

"Given that those revenues are expected to fall far short of our needs, we made the decision to pay for PTC, a priority, with a combination of our own bonds or similar financing (which will be covered by fares), federal funds, and state and RTA bonds," Gillis said.

Got an opinion on the Metra fare increase or PTC? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Upcoming

Metra holds 2015 budget hearings next month from 4 to 7 p.m. on the following dates:

• Nov. 5: Hanover Park Police Department, 2011 W. Lake St.; Kane County Government Center, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva; Mundelein village hall, 300 Plaza Circle.

• Nov. 6: Metra board room, 547 W. Jackson Boulevard, Chicago; Clarendon Hills village hall, 1 N. Prospect Ave.; and Woodstock village hall, 121 W. Calhoun St.

For more info, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home.html.

Gridlock alert

• Jane Addams road warriors should keep their eyes open as the Illinois tollway assembles a gantry system to move beams for the new I-90 bridge over the Fox River. Lanes will remain open when work starts in early November.

• Dark streets and wet leaves are a dangerous combo. Don't forget to slow down and watch for trick-or-treaters this Friday.

Quick visit

A tiny Cessna doing a touch and go at O'Hare? It happened recently when a pilot surprised an air traffic controller by asking for a "full stop taxi," when a pilot lands and then taxis right back out for departure. The controller allows the move but cautions the Cessna pilot to watch for winds from the mighty 747 he's following. Although O'Hare handles some Cessna daily flights, a full stop taxi "is pretty much unheard of," National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church said.

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