Editorial: Despite 2 percent fare hike, Metra shows signs of 'better times' ahead
"It could have been worse" is hardly a comforting standard when assessing cost increases, but combined with some other indications from Metra's board meeting on Wednesday, it can at least take some of the sting out of the coming 2 percent revenue increases for commuters on the rail line.
When, last year, Metra first announced its 10-year schedule of rate increases aimed at improving the service's cars and equipment, officials predicted a fare-revenue increase of 5 percent for 2016 but said that if circumstances justified it, the increase could be less. So, the increase of just 2 percent demonstrates both that the agency is committed to keeping its word and that it is sensitive to the balance that must be struck between customer costs and operational expenses.
Metra executives note that the rail line has taken a serious approach to controlling spending, including millions of dollars in cuts through eliminating management positions, cutting back on some retirement contributions and other activities. As Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke wrote in Thursday's editions, Board Chairman Martin Oberman emphasizes Metra is also reviewing its entire fare structure.
As for improvements in service commuters should expect as a result of their increased fares, Executive Director Don Orseno promised "better times are coming," though he asked customers "to be patient" toward seeing them.
Actions like Wednesday's reduced fare increase -- and as a point of contrast, you might look to villages and school boards that, fearing the uncertainties of the future, routinely collect the maximum allowable tax levy even when they could collect less -- should give commuters some degree of confidence that Metra is managing its revenues and its costs in good faith.
Moreover, there is a sound philosophical basis in the approach to fares that Metra has assumed in recent years, steering away from a model, as Oberman explains it, in which fares remain unchanged for years while costs constantly mount until a large fare increase is required, and toward a model in which fares are reviewed routinely and changed more modestly as immediate demands dictate.
These, then, are reassuring signs of stewardship from an agency that only a few years ago was reeling from high-profile management scandals.
Still, the grumbling from some passengers Wednesday as Metra's board approved the 2016 rate shows that, as we stated when Metra first announced its 10-year upgrade plan, the agency still has a job to do to convince customers of its commitment to improving its facilities and its service.
But Pyke's report Wednesday concludes with a point that disgruntled customers also should take to heart. Board members are concerned that they're not getting much response from public hearings on the agency's budget. Riders who remain concerned about fare increases and service quality should make a point of participating in the budget process to help assure Metra's focus doesn't waver.