Metra may keep $100 Super Saver pass as board balks at return to zoned system

Metra could retain a popular, pandemic-inspired $100 unlimited travel monthly pass for the foreseeable future after board directors rebuffed reverting to a zoned system during budget discussions Wednesday.

The commuter railroad is proposing a $980 million 2023 operating budget, about $80 million higher than the 2022 amended version due mainly to inflation and adding employees, administrators said.

But the change in fares, an estimated $52 million shortfall in 2025 after federal aid dries up, and staff expansion drew scrutiny.

For years, Metra has charged passengers based on the distance of their trips, but after ridership tanked during COVID-19, one tactic to attract commuters was the $100 "Super Saver" monthly pass set to expire Dec. 31.

"We have to have some continuity," board member and Hanover Park Mayor Rod Craig said, adding revising fares could confuse commuters.

Metra budget planners had suggested a monthly pass discounted by about 45% using the original system with up to 10 zones. Under that scenario, someone traveling between downtown and Arlington Heights, for example, would pay $108 monthly instead of $195.75.

Also in flux are the pandemic-era $6 daily pass in up to three zones and $10 systemwide daily pass. Metra budgeteers have recommended ending those products in favor of a daily pass costing as much as two one-way trips between certain zones. All of those options will be considered by the board in November.

Metra Vice Chairman Norman Carlson said the costs of running trains is 97% fixed regardless of where passengers board. "I would be very disappointed if we go back to the old system," he said.

Board members ultimately voted to release the preliminary budget to the public, but a final vote won't come until mid-November.

Following the meeting, Metra announced it would offer two fare options in the budget proposal. They include the Super Saver monthly pass and the 45% discounted version.

Metra, along with Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority, have relied on federal aid to keep afloat through the pandemic. About $238 million in pandemic funding will balance Metra's 2023 budget and it's estimated ridership will reach 55% of pre-COVID levels by the end of the year.

Officials anticipate ridership could climb back to 75% of 2019 levels by 2025, but that still leaves the $52 million funding gap, which could only be covered by increasing fares or cutting service.

Director Ken Koehler of Crystal Lake was troubled by adding more staff given the revenue unknowns in 2025. "We sit here with no answers to that," he said.

Metra Executive Director Jim Derwinski said the railroad has 250 to 300 unfilled positions. "That's based on our pre-COVID numbers," he said.

As the agency normalizes, more employees will be needed. Metra also is hiring people to install new ticket vending machines, Derwinski said.

Metra has a proposed capital budget of nearly $505 million in 2023 compared to about $263 million in 2022, related to an influx of state and federal dollars.

"As more and more projects get on line we're finding the necessity to make sure that we've got enough people here to pay our vendors correctly, to move projects through, to work on grant applications on the federal side," Derwinski said.

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