Why your Metra fares are going up again
Metra's timing for a vote to increase fares was off Wednesday for BNSF Line riders who experienced a sluggish morning with multiple delays.
The hike in passes and tickets goes into effect Feb. 1 and would be the second in two years. Commuters will see spikes averaging 3.6 percent for one-way tickets, 3.2 percent for 10-ride passes and 1.3 percent for monthly pass holders, depending on the length of the commute.
"I've been taking Metra for 35 years; this train is late 90 percent of the time," said Cheryl Cianelli as she climbed aboard a BNSF Line express in Downers Grove. "Fares are going up and service is going down."
Metra leaders countered the extra revenue will help relieve those complaints by paying for new train cars and updated equipment.
"I know you're frustrated and I am frustrated," Executive Director Don Orseno said after the vote. But "we have the least amount of failures ... with the lowest fares and oldest fleet in the (commuter rail) system working in the most complex terminal in North America. We still have a very good product -- we're just asking people to be patient and better times are coming."
The higher cost is "as close to fair as arithmetically possible," Chairman Martin Oberman said, adding Metra is readying to give its entire fare structure a redo. Metra bases its rates on distances traveled right now using a system that's been in place for decades.
The changes mean a suburban resident traveling between Chicago and Lisle or Arlington Heights will pay an extra $2.50 for a monthly pass, $1.75 for a 10-ride pass and 25 cents for a single ticket.
In February 2015, Metra instituted an average 10.8 percent increase, however, monthly passes jumped as high as 19 percent.
UP Northwest Line rider Anne Heddleston isn't sold on the latest move.
"I haven't seen much of a beneficial change in service since the last increase. We still have mechanical breakdowns and we even had the PA box not working for nearly three weeks not long ago."
At the Arlington Heights Metra station. rider Kimberly Watt of Buffalo Grove had similar views. "I'm most upset that they're raising prices and yet it seems the trains run later and later and there's more and more delays," she said.
The hike could have been worse if not for budget cuts, cheaper diesel fuel and higher sales tax revenues, Metra leaders said. They noted that state funding has dwindled and a federally mandated new braking system will cost an extra $3.3 million to maintain next year. The railroad's on-time performance in October was 97 percent overall and 93.6 on the BNSF Line.
But UP Northwest Line commuter Christina Minich of Arlington Heights said, "I really appreciate Metra and I understand we need to support infrastructure."
Kent College of Law student Alex Misakian likes Metra but not paying more. "I'm cash-strapped," he said. "I wish they could offer some kind of student discount."
Oberman promised the agency will look at giving college students a break.
Metra is pursuing a 10-year, $2.4 billion capital plan that includes buying 367 new train cars and 52 locomotives to be paid for with regular fare hikes over a decade.
Asked if riders should expect higher fares in 2017, Oberman said "I do." The amount will be "examined very closely," he said, adding projections of 5 percent in 2016 were lowered to 2 percent.
Stacey Horcher, who commutes from Wheeling, said, "I sure wish I could count on raises at work like I can count on big government to give themselves more and more of my pay, which doesn't keep increasing ad infinitum."
This year's operating budget is up by 2 percent from $744.7 million in 2015 to $759.8 million in 2016. Salary raises for union and nonunion workers are expected to be about 3 percent on average.
The 2016 fare increase amounts to a 2 percent spike in overall fare revenue, generating $6.5 million.
A monthly pass holder traveling between Lisle or Arlington Heights and Chicago will pay $173.50 instead of $171, and a 10-ride pass will cost $55.75 instead of $54.
Board directors wondered why no one attended public hearings on the budget. Oberman joked holding a public hearing at Union Station was a success because "we went from seven people (in 2014) to 11 people" in 2015, and asked staff members to come up with a solution to draw more riders.
• Daily Herald Staff Reporter Mark Welsh contributed to this report.