Metra spending to bring back trains while projecting riders will take years to return
Metra projects a welcome restoration of train service to pre-pandemic levels plus no fare hikes in the coming year.
But the flip side is a 12.5% spike in spending -- even though planners expect a continued passenger and fare drought with railcars about two-thirds empty compared to norms.
Meanwhile, more than $502 million in federal aid is needed to keep trains running through 2024.
Let's unpack this paradox.
Metra allocated $822.2 million for 2019 operations and forecast a $827.4 million budget for 2020. Pre-pandemic, the railroad anticipated expenditure growth of about 3.3% in 2021 and 2022 with $855 million and $883 million budgets, respectively,
Then disaster struck as COVID-19 emptied trains, and Metra ended up with a revised budget of $800 million in 2021.
Next year, the agency proposes raising spending to $900 million, a 12.5% hike that's also higher than what had been envisioned in pre-pandemic forecasts.
The "$900 million is approximately 2% higher than the previous projection of $883 million," spokesman Michael Gillis said.
"Drivers of the additional 2%, or $17 million, include higher general inflation, higher insurance costs, higher medical premiums and higher pension expenses as well as additional head count," Gillis added.
In March 2020 as COVID-19 surged, Metra cut service in half and is still operating at reduced levels.
Ramping up will increase repair expenses compared to last year when less equipment was running, Gillis said.
Staffing will increase by 121 people, while still short of pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, there were 4,547 employees in total, comprising Metra and freight partners BNSF and Union Pacific. In 2021, there were 4,368 workers including BNSF and UP.
That tally will grow to 4,489 in 2022.
That number "includes people that will be rehired and some new hires for departments across the agency. Although we avoided large numbers of layoffs in 2020 and 2021 by reassigning some employees to capital jobs, there were a small number of layoffs at Metra itself," spokeswoman Meg Thomas-Reile said.
The agency also intends to fill a number of jobs kept open for some time.
Expected changes include: adding 20 three-year mechanical apprentice positions; 12 new Metra Police Department officers and trainers to fulfill a state safety mandate; 10 to 15 people for various administrative jobs, up to 19 hires in the engineering department to fill vacancies, and extra staff to oversee capital projects.
Metra's additions also include 18 professionals needed to fulfill new federal regulations that range from inspections to using new software to assess equipment conditions.
During the pandemic, Metra paid reduced wages to train workers in cases when assignments were canceled as required by collective bargaining agreements. With all routes restored, labor costs will go up.
Contractors BNSF and UP railroads also dismissed, furloughed or reassigned workers to freight operations and BNSF is expected to add more in 2022.
While service builds up, total passenger trips are expected to hit 22.2 million next year, just 30% of the 74 million pre-COVID 2019 tally. Ridership is projected to be 37 million in 2023 and 54 million in 2024.
"We feel the most responsible approach is to be cautious with our assumptions about the growth in ridership while at the same time ramping up our service," Executive Director Jim Derwinski stated.
Fewer riders means a continued fare shortfall. Typically, tickets and regional sales taxes keep Metra in the black.
Now, however, planners predict revenue gaps of $92.8 million in 2022, $238.6 million in 2023 and $171.4 million in 2024.
Federal COVID-19 relief funding to the tune of $502.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act should balance the budget, Acting Chief Financial Officer Alan Ochab said. Pace and the CTA are also relying on federal aid.
But if that revenue is insufficient or the Regional Transportation Authority allocates a smaller amount, "anything and everything is on the table," Ochab said at a recent meeting, citing fare hikes as well as job or service reductions.
Drivers on I-290 and the Tri-State Tollway should prepare for delays near Elmhurst. The ramp from southbound I-294 to the westbound I-290 is closed through November so workers can rebuild the structure. Detours will be posted.
Regarding moving the Chicago Bears to Arlington Park, reader Jerry Loftis writes, "I have lived in the Northwest suburbs my entire life of 75 years and I can tell you getting to Soldier Field is no picnic. The train stations and expressway exits both are many, many blocks away through downtown Chicago and have many, many red lights. And once one manages to get close to the stadium, the traffic gridlock is so bad that you have to walk many blocks."