Is the Fare Fair? Metra Will Likely Raise Ticket Prices to Keep Southwest Service Steady
Instead of SouthWest Service line cuts, Metra's Board of Directors will vote next month on several changes to the fare structure before letting the public have a say.
Metra's Board of Directors has decided against a proposal that would have cut weekday and weekend trains along the SouthWest Service Line, but the board is looking at an average 30 percent fare hike to plug next year's budget hole.
Directors have settled temporarily on a proposal from Metra staff to raise one-way tickets by 17 percent, monthly tickets by 29 percent, and 10-ride tickets by 32 percent.
In the meantime, they also agreed to discontinue the subsidy for Link-Up and PlusBus passes, round all tickets to the nearest quarter, and shorten all expiration and refund dates on sales. Ten ride tickets, for instance, would be redeemable for only 30 days, down from one year, with a $5 processing fee.
The commuter rail division of the Illinois Regional Transit Authority is facing a $65 million deficit in 2012 and $100 million deficit in 2013.
"Never before in Metra's history have we been faced with a challenge of this magnitude," Metra CEO Alex Clifford said.
However, most directors put their foot down on a recommendation to eliminate weekend passes.
“Toll ways are going up, parking downtown is exorbitant,” Director Jack Schaffer said. “We’re cutting Chicago off from the suburbs. This, long-term, cannot be good for the health of the city.”
This summer, Metra staff presented the board with several options for cutting service, blaming high fuel costs, decreased state aid and poor long-term planning on behalf of the previous leadership for the hole they’re in. Some weekday trains between Orland Park and Manhattan—numbers 815 and 830—and all of the Saturday service for SWS were on the chopping block, as were certain trains along the Union Pacific North and Milwaukee lines.
Clifford said SWS was part of a two-year demonstration program from the RTA—in response to highway and CTA repairs—and due to low ridership, the cost of the service was no longer justified.
“We predicted 200 riders per train on Saturday. The total ridership was 400 for the entire day,” Judy Pardonnet, a spokeswoman for Metra, said, which is about 28 percent of the passengers they initially targeted.
In total, this option was estimated to save about $900,000, which doesn’t amount to “all that much,” given the size of the deficit, Director Brad O’Halloran said.
Congressman Dan Lipinski (IL-3) and 22 elected officials along the Southwest Service line recently sent a pointed letter to Metra expressing their opposition to reduce service, saying that such service cuts would “disenfranchise” commuters in the southwest suburbs.
At Friday’s board meeting, the discussions veered toward revenue rather than service.
“Our fares have not kept pace with inflation,” said Senior Division Director Lynette Ciavarella. Had they, she added, a ticket purchased in Zone E to downtown would cost $7 today, $2 less than what has been proposed with the hike.
A campaign, entitled “Be Fair, Pay the Fare,” allots space on the commuter company’s website where riders can fill out a form detailing instances when other riders have evaded fares or rode beyond their ticketed zone. The results of a recent survey show that some riders have noticed conductors failing to collect fares.
Clifford said he would keep an eye on Obama’s Job Plan for transportation funds and vowed to go after additional state and federal funds “aggressively.” In response, Director Mike McCoy said Metra needs to begin thinking of itself as a private-sector business, with less reliance on grant funds and a “fare structure that … we can manage and be stable over the years.”
Clifford will return to the board next month with a final recommendation for fares. He said he and his staff still have some “fine-tuning” to do, but noted that the numbers discussed Friday were “very close.”
Metra is planning to hold a public hearing on the 2012 budget in each of the six counties it services before calling a final vote in November. RTA then needs to approve the budget in December.
Any fare hikes would take effect in February.