The $100 'Super Saver' pass will stay as Metra passes its third pandemic-era budget

Metra directors opted to keep bargain fares offering flexibility to riders as they adopted the 2023 budget Friday, but the move will mean about $2 million less than originally estimated in revenues.

The agency will continue offering its popular $100 "Super Saver" monthly pass with unlimited rides, $6 daily pass in up to three zones and $10 systemwide daily pass.

The three products were introduced amid the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to tempt passengers back after a record drop in ridership.

A preliminary budget presented in October recommended reverting to a discounted monthly pass with zones, but Metra directors opposed the change.

Federal aid will help the commuter railroad balance its budgets in 2023 and 2024, but a shortfall of $54 million is expected in 2025 when federal relief is used up.

The 2023 budget allocates $980 million for operations, including diesel fuel and salaries. It's about $80 million higher than the 2022 amended version due mainly to inflation and adding employees, administrators said.

"We definitely have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years, not just for Metra but the entire public transportation system," Executive Director Jim Derwinski said.

The hope is the low-price fares will "continue to draw former and new riders to our system and continue to grow our ridership," he said.

Director Joseph McMahan, of Kane County, said he appreciated officials' listening to concerns raised last month about the proposed budget.

Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority have relied on federal aid to keep afloat through the pandemic, and the Regional Transportation Authority recognizes the dilemma, said Director Ken Koehler, of Crystal Lake.

"In several years, there's a big deficit that's going to be out there, we realize, and we cannot fill that with revenue (from) ticket sales," he said.

About $240 million in pandemic funding will balance Metra's 2023 budget. Metra planners anticipate the railroad will begin 2023 at 40% of pre-pandemic ridership and end with 55% of passengers back in seats.

Planners predict ridership could climb back to 75% of 2019 levels by 2025, but that still leaves the $54 million funding gap, which could be covered only by increasing fares or cutting service.

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

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