Metra answers frustrations on fare hikes, staff raises
Metra's still got a lot of explaining to do when it comes to raising fares by a proposed average of 10.8 percent.
The agency's board of directors is poised to vote on its 2015 budget Friday. The plan includes hiking a range of products so that a monthly pass between Chicago and Lisle would jump by 14 percent, for example.
The increase would allow Metra to borrow $100 million to help pay for new train cars and locomotives and fund an automatic braking system required by the government. But a large share of the new cash would go for operating expenses, including cost-of-living increases for employees.
Many riders are skeptical, and as a result, the Daily Herald asked Metra to address some common questions from commuters. Here are the answers, given by spokesman Michael Gillis.
Q. I don't believe Metra should raise fares to buy more locomotives and cars. The older cars are fine and in many ways better than the newer ones. The older Budd-built cars are solid. If they want to improve on-time performance, they should put money into signals and switches.
Gillis: Unfortunately, the Budd cars are not fine. Some of them date from the 1950s and simply are beyond their useful life. The Budd cars were a significant source of train delays last winter, because their doors tended to freeze and stick more so than newer cars. And we are not ignoring switches. Investing in our switches is a routine part of Metra's capital program every year. Gillis added that this year, Metra upgraded its A5 interlocker, the switches at the junction of the Milwaukee North and West (also used by the North Central service) lines.
Q. The problem I have with the increase is the service. The North Central Service is often late or delayed. The schedule is also very limited and hasn't changed in years. I feel if you are asking for me to pay more, there should be more and better service.
Gillis: We understand that riders desire more and better service. But we hope they also understand there is a cost to adding service. Adding service would increase our costs and our need for a fare increase. In addition, the NCS operates over tracks owned by the Canadian National Railway, and our agreement with them allows us only to operate our current schedule.
Q. I'm an Ogilvie Transportation Center commuter. Conductors and trainmen still make people wait to board trains. When they come through to collect fares some of them have an attitude and are nasty to people. Certainly not all train staff are this way, but there are a few on the UP Northwest line in the morning that are just rude.
Gillis: "We certainly agree that all our workers need to use courtesy and respect in all their interactions with our riders. We address every specific complaint that is sent to us. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your concerns and we will immediately address them.
Q. I think that having the hearings (on fare increases) at times when most Metra riders cannot be there (4-7 p.m.) just makes them feel all the more helpless and at the mercy of Metra.
Gillis: We understand some riders cannot attend the public hearings. That is why we offered other ways to send us their feedback, including email and regular mail. We will be considering extending the hours in future years. And we likely will follow up with a suggestion from one rider at a public hearing to distribute forms on our trains for riders to fill out with input about our budgets.
Q. Does Metra think that all their riders are getting 15 percent and more increases on a regular basis (as reported by the Daily Herald Tuesday)? I just got my first 2.4 percent increase after four years and may not get another one. It seems to me like every time there's a new transportation project afoot, the poor little gets stuck with the bill.
Gillis: The decision to give raises to employees was a business decision that had to be made so that Metra could recruit and retain the most qualified individuals to operate the organization safely and efficiently. Historically, Metra has had wages that were arbitrarily set, in many cases below industry standards, and Metra recognized that this was not an optimal business practice. Our decision to seek a fare increase was made after first looking for areas to cut and aggressively seeking new sources of revenue. We will continue to do that every year before proposing to raise fares.
Q. Why is there a discrepancy in fare increases? For example, it's a 10.9 percent increase in Zone M but 18.5 percent in Zone A?"
Gillis: Our fare calculations start with the base, one-way fare from each zone. We multiply the old one-way fare by 10.75 percent and then round up to the nearest quarter. To calculate the monthly fare, we multiply the one-way fare for each zone by 28.5 and then round up again to the nearest quarter. (That is the pricing level we established for monthlies; they are equal to 28.5 one-way fares.)