Metra rolls out fare increase

by Beth Lawrence

More than 40 percent of Metra's fleet dates back to a time between the Eisenhower administration and the Reagan administration.
More than 40 percent of Metra’s fleet dates back to a time between the Eisenhower administration and the Reagan administration.

If you ride Chicago’s commuter rail system, you better be willing to shell out a few extra dollars in 2015. Metra is rolling out a new budget including a proposed fare increase averaging almost 11 percent.

While that’s the average, some riders could see prices increase by as much as 22.3 percent depending on ridership zones. Riders who stay close to downtown in Zone A could see a fare increase of 18.2 percent for one-way tickets. The percentage increase narrows for customers traveling farther, for example those traveling from Chicago to Aurora, which is Zone H.

That’s just the beginning. Additional fare hikes proposed by Metra over the next 10 years could ultimately raise the price of tickets by 68 percent.

If approved, the higher fares in 2015 would comes just three years after Metra raised prices by 25 percent, the biggest increase in the agency’s history.

Metra also wants to raise the surcharge for tickets purchased on trains to $5 from $3 when passengers board at stations where tickets were available. And the agency is proposing increasing weekend pass prices to $8 from $7.

Martin Oberman, chairman of Metra’s board of directors, said hiking fares is necessary to bring the rail service up to modern standards. “We do need a shot in the arm this coming year,” he said. “Metra has not had a plan for years. It’s actually never had a real plan to refurbish and buy new cars, and they’re breaking down.”

The 11 percent fare increase is actually less than the original 13 percent Metra was looking for. The rail service was able to lower its request after it received additional funding from the Regional Transportation Authority, Oberman said.

The increase is part of Metra’s $2.4 billion capital plan to replace hundreds of railcars in a fleet where more than 40 percent of its cars date from the Eisenhower administration to the Reagan administration. Each new railcar costs about $3.5 million, Oberman said.

At a public hearing Thursday, Oberman repeatedly asked attendees not to blame for mistakes that happened in the past. He was elected chairman of Metra’s board in 2014.

Metra has been rehabbing 23 to 25 cars a year, but that number should be closer to 60 per year to stay on track, officials said. Deferring maintenance has allowed the rail service to keep prices artificially low, Oberman said: “It may make you feel good in the short term but that’s no way to run a railroad or any other business.”

To pay for the fleet upgrade, Metra will be issuing bonds for the first time in its history. Metra plans to issue $100 million in 2015 and another $300 million in bonds during the next 10 years.

State and federal sources are expected to contribute an additional $710 million in funding. That leaves a $1.3 billion gap that Metra will have to fill during the next decade. Metra says it will “aggressively pursue additional federal and state funding, new financing strategies and alternative financing mechanisms.”

Passengers will be happy to see some of the changes Metra has planned in 2015, including the return of the 10-ride pass for the cost of nine rides. Metra also is bringing back the grace period that allows extra time for passengers with monthly passes to replace them.

Aurora resident Jennifer Pajda-De La O questioned those breaks because the rail service is already losing money.

Other passengers expressed concern that fare increases without improved service are unfair and will deter riders from using Metra.

“At this point you’re going to have new equipment with nobody riding it,” said Kevin Karl Peterson.

Oberman acknowledged that higher prices will not increase the frequency of service. But the hike is needed to ensure service is not reduced. “Otherwise it’s going to get worse,” Oberman said.

Oberman also noted that most of the cost of Metra service is already covered by taxpayers. He said riders only cover about half the operating costs with the price of a ticket.

“They’re getting a bargain now,” he said. “They’re being subsidized by the taxpayers at large, and that subsidy is going to continue.”

Some passengers at the meeting voiced concerns about the freezing track switches that plagued Metra for much of last winter, but Oberman said money from the rate hike would not be allocated to deal with that issue. “The most expensive switch known to mankind could not resist two days of those freezing temperatures and ice falling off the trains,” he said.

However, the capital program will cover the cost to install a federally mandated “positive train control” system that prevents derailments and train-to-train collisions by slowing or stopping trains in immediate danger of hitting something.

Metra’s board will vote on the fare increase Nov. 14.  If approved the increases would go into effect in February.