No Metra fare hike, but service cuts loom without state aid

 
 
Updated 9/13/2018 7:48 AM
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  • Metra riders get a break from fare hikes next year, but the rail agency threatens big service cuts unless the state increases funding.

    Metra riders get a break from fare hikes next year, but the rail agency threatens big service cuts unless the state increases funding. Daily Herald file photo

  • Metra board members agreed Wednesday not to raise fares again, saying that would be just "nickels and dimes" compared to the funding Metra needs.

      Metra board members agreed Wednesday not to raise fares again, saying that would be just "nickels and dimes" compared to the funding Metra needs. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

Metra leaders gave riders a 2019 fare-hike holiday Wednesday but promised doomsday-scenario downsizing unless state funding materializes.

That could mean eliminating stations, trains and even routes, officials said.

"Absent adequate funding, Metra cannot survive in its current form," Chairman Norm Carlson said.

The solution is to convince Illinois lawmakers to turn on the tap for transit despite ongoing state budget woes, officials said. "We are the lifeline that holds the region together economically -- we get people back and forth to work," Carlson said.

If the push for funding fails, "drastic changes in service levels ... may be needed to shrink (Metra's) size to what our resources can sustain," he added.

"The truth is we're going bankrupt, and unless we get those who are in the position to make this change, we'll go bankrupt," Metra Director and South Holland Mayor Don De Graff said.

Directors will vote on the 2019 budget in November, but agreed Wednesday not to institute a fare increase. The agency raised rates by up to 12.6 percent in February and cut trains on routes like the North Central Service, which runs between Chicago and Antioch.

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

"How dare we ask people for more money for a ride when we have a depreciating product?" said Hanover Park Mayor and Director Rod Craig.

The agency is hamstrung by state fees, revenue cuts, expenses for a federally mandated automatic breaking system, and Illinois' lack of a capital budget, Carlson said.

Asked what service cuts would mean, officials couldn't provide specifics yet.

"It could mean cutting service, it could mean less stations, it could mean less service during the day, it could be for a period of time during the day," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.

Metra planners will analyze what routes are the lowest-performing as well as provide systemwide "right-sizing" options for directors to consider, he explained.

"All of this right-sizing will have to do with lowering operating costs," Derwinski said.

The SouthWest Service, Heritage Corridor and North Central Service have the least riders but also the fewest trains.

According to 2016 Metra records, stations ranked in the bottom 25 for weekday boardings included Rosemont on the North Central Service, Mannheim on the Milwaukee West District Line, Kedzie on the Union Pacific West Line plus a number of Metra Electric stops.

Board members did have the option of increasing rates by 25 cents a ticket, generating $12 million, or by 50 cents, resulting in $28 million more.

"Fare increases are only raising nickels and dimes compared to the billions in capital we need," Carlson, of Lake Forest, said. Fares cover one-third of operating costs.

The agency will also suspend its ambitious $2.4 billion, 10-year capital improvement plan that was the basis for fare hikes starting in 2015. Assuming a budget with no ticket hikes passes in November, Metra will divert revenue from previous fare increases into its operating budget, which includes salaries, supplies and fuel.

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