Metra's glimmer of hope on fare hikes
February was like a big, wet snowball down the collar for Metra riders: Fares went up 10.8 percent on average that month, and the bill for monthly pass holders rose as much as 19 percent.
And that was just the beginning of a 10-year program that proposed another 5 percent hike in 2016 and annual increases totaling an average of 68 percent through -- gulp -- 2024.
But did Metra just this week offer riders a glimmer of hope?
"We don't know at this point whether there will be a fare increase or not" in 2016, Metra CEO Don Orseno told Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke.
And there's more: Orseno said the agency has cut $5.7 million by eliminating six management jobs, reducing certain retirement contributions, bringing some work in-house and replacing or rehabbing old fuel-gulping trains.
"If we can find ways to avoid higher fares, we will do it," he said.
Well, if this is a sign of the coming of a more efficient and user-focused Metra, we are on board.
When the fare increases were announced last year, Metra said it had to pay for a $2.4 billion program to upgrade and maintain the commuter rail system.
Up-to-date equipment and infrastructure are among the necessities if you want to assure safe and reliable service. It's hard to argue with that goal, even in the face of rider complaints that if you're paying $21 more a month (the added cost of a monthly fare card between Chicago and either Arlington Heights or Lisle, for example) you should at least get Wi-Fi, added trains and better adherence to the schedule.
But Metra's timing was terrible. The agency trotted out the fare increases last year after giving 320 employees pay raises averaging 15 percent and going as high as 36 percent, data obtained by Pyke showed. Along with 91 employees who got promotions that included raises, the cost was about $5.4 million.
It certainly wasn't a way to look cost-conscious, especially on top of Metra's poor track record in previous years in managing the system.
So if Orseno and the Metra board can finally make a convincing case the agency is controlling costs and spending wisely, it's a big step in the right direction.
If they can stave off a fare increase while still responsibly planning for future needs, that's a big win -- not only for the rail system but for commuters, many of whom have not recovered from the salary stagnation and job losses of the 2007-09 recession.
Customer goodwill is a valuable thing, something government-run services sometimes fail to recognize. Holding back on fare increases could go a long way toward building a loyal and appreciative ridership, something sure to pay off in the long run.