Metra won't raise fares but needs to cover $70 million gap
Even with running trains on reduced schedules, Metra faces a $70 million shortfall next year, officials said Tuesday before releasing a preliminary 2021 budget of $700 million.
With ridership down about 89% because of the COVID-19 pandemic, agency leaders aren't touching a fare increase, but service cuts are possible. Cutting about 10% of expenses or financial aid from the federal government are two options to close the gap.
Metra received $479 million through the CARES Act passed by Congress this spring and has used $146 million so far. But that money will run out mid-2021, Chief Financial Officer Tom Farmer said at a virtual board meeting.
"Metra must either secure $70 million in revenue from other sources, most likely another federal relief bill; further trim its expenses by $70 million; or identify new revenue and cuts totaling $70 million," spokesman Michael Gillis said.
Later Tuesday, President Donald Trump ordered aides to pull out of talks with House Democratic leaders on a relief package.
"CARES gives us breathing room, but it's not permanent fix," Farmer said. "We can't let it run out until we've restructured ourselves. We will do what it takes because we have to make sure we become self-sustaining again. We need to survive this."
Officials did not discuss how they would cut costs Tuesday.
For 2020, Metra had forecast collecting $363 million from passengers, but now just $113 million is anticipated.
"As you can see, they're down. Way down," Farmer said of fares.
One new revenue idea introduced Tuesday under consideration is a $7 unlimited ride pass good on Saturdays or Sundays.
Meanwhile, Metra is embarked on an ad campaign to rebuild ridership, which has plummeted by about 89%, that focuses on sanitizing cars and reassuring passengers the trains are free of germs.
However, rider Jennifer Brown of Woodstock urged the railroad to enforce rules about wearing masks in railcars, saying she sometimes retreats to the vestibule because other commuters remove face coverings.
"This makes me feel less than safe," Brown said in comments read aloud by Metra staff during the meeting.
Chief of Staff Janice Thomas said conductors report rule breakers daily and "currently we have a high rate of compliance with mask wearing."
Metra officials also notified passengers to update their Ventra apps to continue purchasing tickets on the application by Friday.
Metra will hold an online hearing on the budget from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 5. Information on participating is available at metrarail.com.