Editorial: Metra must minimize any fare hikes, service cuts

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted10/11/2017 6:00 AM
  • Coming at you: Fare hikes and service cuts. But has Metra done enough to reduce spending in other areas?

    Coming at you: Fare hikes and service cuts. But has Metra done enough to reduce spending in other areas?

If your income drops, what are you going to do?

Someone writing a sound household budget would say it's time to cut costs.

Metra, instead, says it's time to raise fares for the fourth year in a row, coupled with cutting the number of trains running daily between the suburbs and Chicago.

It hardly sounds like the way to secure steady ridership, which dropped 1.5 percent for the year through August.

Riders, meanwhile, are irritated. "That's ridiculous," commuter Mike McKinney said. They'll have a chance to say plenty more at public hearings set for 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in Hanover Park, Mundelein, Clarendon Hills and Homewood, and Nov. 2 at Crystal Lake, Geneva, Chicago and Joliet.

We understand the rail agency's concern after the Illinois legislature, in a money grab aimed at easing its own budget disaster, cut subsidies and began skimming 2 percent from the tax people in Chicago and the suburbs pay for the RTA, the transit umbrella agency. The 2 percent alone will take $23 million more from public transit and send it to the state this year. Sales taxes also are down.

That leaves Metra with a $45 million deficit.

Reluctantly, we concede a shortfall of that size needs to be attacked from many angles. A fare increase might be unavoidable, and it is preferable to service cuts, but it needs to be kept as modest as possible.

At the same time, we urge Metra to dig deeper for savings that don't directly hit commuters.

New labor costs account for about half the deficit, and it's an obvious first place to look. Metra anticipates raises averaging 3 percent with no hiring freeze or layoffs, though some positions will be kept unfilled.

A 10 percent pay increase last year for soon-to-retire Metra head Don Orseno, to $317,500, does not give us confidence the agency has done all it can to contain costs. New CEO James Derwinski will make $275,000.

Aside from that, some Metra directors seem to not quite grasp the effect on some riders whose own pay will take a hit from rising commuting costs.

One commented that Metra charges less than other railroads, which should be a point of pride, not a justification for raising fares. Another decried keeping staff positions open, adding Metra is a "Cadillac not a Chevy." That's debatable, but also tone deaf. Plenty of riders would be happy with a nice, reliable Chevy that doesn't come with a cost increase every few months.

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