Metra's latest fare hike arrives this week: Where's money going?

 
 
Updated 1/30/2017 9:38 AM
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  • Metra commuters get hit with a third fare hike in as many years this Wednesday. Riders on average will pay another $2.75 for a 10-ride ticket and $11.75 for a monthly pass.

    Metra commuters get hit with a third fare hike in as many years this Wednesday. Riders on average will pay another $2.75 for a 10-ride ticket and $11.75 for a monthly pass. Daily Herald File Photo

Three Metra fare hikes instituted each February from 2015 through 2017 will generate a cumulative $117 million. The latest increase, averaging 5.8 percent, begins Wednesday.

Where, riders wonder, is the money going? And what's happened to promised new railcars and locomotives?

"It is outrageous," rider Shawn Lewis said of the change last week at the Lisle train station.

"Fares went up last year and again this year. I'm struggling with this right now. I might have to drive," added Lewis, who commutes from Naperville to Cicero on the BNSF Line.

Metra gets its customers' concerns, Executive Director Don Orseno said, but the agency is hamstrung by the state budget crisis and meager federal funding.

The railroad needs $11.7 billion over the next decade to fix or replace decrepit trains, bridges, tracks and stations, officials said. Funding, however, is elusive. Absent a windfall, Metra is aggressively rehabilitating old railcars and locomotives and returning them to customers in pristine condition, Orseno said.

But "we need long-term sustainable funding to get to where we need to be. We truly appreciate our customers and do all we can to live up to their expectations and make the system the best we can make it," he said.

With the higher rates, riders will typically pay $2.75 more for a 10-ride ticket and $11.75 more for a monthly pass.

In 2014, Metra optimistically introduced an ambitious 10-year, $2.4 billion modernization plan to be partly funded by regular fare increases. The program pledged to deliver 367 railcars and 52 locomotives plus update existing ones, fund a federally mandated automatic braking system called positive train control, and pay for operating costs.

Riders paid an average 10.8 percent more in 2015 and about 2 percent more in 2016.

So far, Metra hasn't placed any orders for new trains although it's set aside $7 million for financing.

Of the $117 million in revenues, about $60 million is dedicated to capital needs. The remaining $57 million is allocated for operating costs, such as downtown station leases, diesel fuel and salaries, which are increasing by 3 percent in 2017.

Rich Parker of Naperville has not forgotten about the promised new cars.

Two years ago, "they said, 'oh, we're investing in new equipment.' They haven't invested a penny," said Parker, who rides from Naperville to his job in Cicero and is frustrated over late trains.

"They're not fixing equipment. The doors freeze on local trains. We're not seeing any new cars. We're not seeing any new equipment," Parker said. "We're getting nothing for it."

The agency intended to take advantage of a state bonding program to borrow money for new stock, but that program is nonexistent as lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner feud over the budget.

This summer, Metra suspended its search for a railcar vendor, saying the state had put $300 million intended for its capital budget on hold.

"We're going to do everything we can to try to order new cars," Orseno said.

Since the summer, Metra has worked to buy 21 railcars relatively cheaply by piggybacking on a Virginia commuter railroad's contract.

Orseno was not sure about locomotives, other than hoping for a lucky break from a fund established by Volkswagen after its emissions scandal.

At the end of 2016, about 70 railcars were rehabilitated in-house. Metra intends to boost productivity by 33 percent by expanding its repair shop.

Meanwhile, positive train control has eaten up about $118 million in capital.

Asked for his opinion, rider Dylan Pauga, who lives in Chicago and works in the Lisle area, said: "I hear they're in the red and could use it. It doesn't affect me -- I'd take Metra anyway because it's better than driving."

Vinnie Hernandez, who commutes from Chicago to Lisle, said: "I don't want to pay more money for something, but I'm recently without a car. I understand the need for increases in fares. (Metra) is the best form of transportation; people are nice and I feel safest."

One more thing

While fares are going up, Metra ridership was down by about 1.5 percent in 2016. This comes despite a marketing campaign costing $4 million over three years.

"While it's impossible to relate changes in ridership directly to marketing and advertising alone, we are confident that our plan for 2017 will provide the biggest bang for the buck and use the limited marketing dollars we have to attract new riders to our system," Chief External Affairs Officer Wendy Abrams said.

Get cooking on transportation

Need cash? Got a worthwhile transportation project? The Cook County Department of Transportation has a pot of $8.5 million for ideas that improve how people and goods get around the region. Applications from local governments and transit agencies will be accepted through March 17. For more information, go to cookcountyil.gov/InvestInCook.

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