Editorial: User-based pay system will get Metra only so far

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted9/13/2018 5:37 PM
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  • Metra trains like this one in downtown Mount Prospect have become lifelines for suburban communities and a critical transportation option for commuters.

    Metra trains like this one in downtown Mount Prospect have become lifelines for suburban communities and a critical transportation option for commuters. Daily Herald File Photo

On Wednesday, the Metra board gave its ridership the gift of a year off from fare hikes. Yet, board members bemoaned the financial situation Metra finds itself in and worried out loud about the agency's future.

It wasn't reassuring. Chairman Norma Carlson's blunt declaration that, "Absent adequate funding, Metra cannot survive in its current form," and Metra Director Don De Graff's assertion that without funding, "We'll go bankrupt," should set off alarm bells in the heart of every suburbanite, whether you use Metra or not.

The agency had the options of increasing rates by 25 cents a ticket, generating $12 million, or by 50 cents, resulting in $28 million more. The board didn't take either one, for now.

Last February, Metra raised rates by up to 12.6 percent, along with cutting some trains.

"We cannot solve this problem on the backs of the riders," Director John Zediker of Naperville said this week.

He's got a point.

Over the last few years, we have called on the Metra board to do what it can to help itself soldier through financial crisis after financial crisis. We have asked the state of Illinois to pay down the backlog of what it owes the Regional Transportation Authority in operating funds, which in May was around $450 million.

But we have also asked Metra to limit service cuts and fare hikes as much as possible.

Being in the suburbs ourselves gives us a unique perspective on just how much commuter rail means.

Unlike Chicago itself, with its more than century-old, intricate network of buses and elevated lines, the suburbs are deeply reliant on Metra's trains. The Chicago region developed as a hub-and-spoke economic center, and despite suburban sprawl, it still is that. The human traffic going in and out of Chicago daily could not possibly fit our existing highways. And then there's parking.

The lucky small towns that got the railroad back in the 1800s knew what they had -- transportation for goods, services and people that opened their communities up to trade and resettlement. Even today, all transit stations are existing or potential economic hubs that benefit the region and state, not just the community.

Besides the economic benefit, mass transit reduces our carbon footprint and our reliance on foreign oil, it helps suburbanites achieve efficient travel options and a better life-work balance.

But every time the fares go up, a few more riders are disenfranchised and a few more can't afford the trip to work. The suburbs are not endless rooftops of wealth -- there are plenty of middle class and lower middle class towns and neighborhoods to offset the Winnetkas and Wilmettes, and the region's transit system has to work for everybody.

We're not suggesting fare hikes will never be in order, or that low-traffic stations couldn't ever be closed. But the Metra board's decision to forego a fare hike in 2019 is a welcome breather for every suburbanite, to whom Metra is a big part of their life.

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