Metra Eyes Lesser Cuts, But Fare Hikes Loom Larger
August 13, 2011
By Richard Wronski
Metra officials on Friday all but killed a proposal for weekday service reductions to offset a looming deficit in 2012, adding to the inevitability of fare increases — possibly as high as 20 percent next year alone.
The commuter rail agency's directors threw cold water on a plan floated last month to cut 31 weekday trains on 10 of Metra's 11 lines. They seemed more receptive to a less-severe option, introduced Friday, that calls for trimming weekend service on three lines and two little-used daily runs.
"We're not in the business of cutting service," said board member Jim LaBelle of Lake County.
But the new option would only save Metra $894,000, a tiny fraction of a potential $100 million budget hole. The proposed weekday service cuts would have saved about $8.2 million.
That would increase the pressure to raise money via fare hikes, Metra CEO Alex Clifford acknowledged.
"It's just simple math," he said. "If you go from $8 million in service reductions to less than $1 million, you're going to have that (need) play out on the fare increase side."
Clifford reiterated that Metra might need to hike fares as high as 20 percent in 2012, with another, lesser increase in 2013 and regular cost-of-living adjustments after that.
"Remember, this (fare hike) can has been kicked down the road a bit too long. We need to catch up. That's why we're having a big bump," Clifford said.
No specific fare proposal is expected until next month, and a decision on fare changes isn't likely until October or November.
The Metra staff has recommended that weekend service be trimmed on the Milwaukee District North, Union Pacific North, and SouthWest Service lines. These runs were added in 2008 and 2009.
In addition, weekday SouthWest Service on two trains between Orland Park's 179th Street station and Manhattan would be eliminated.
After service reductions were proposed in July, Metra posted a survey on its website asking for customers' feedback.
Among other findings, more than 31 percent of respondents said they would prefer to pay up to a 25 percent fare increase rather than have service reductions, according to Metra.
"What we're hearing is that, generally speaking, riders are willing to pay a little more in fares rather than see their service go away," Clifford said.
Mike Crowley, a SouthWest Service commuter from Orland Park,, said "it would be tough" if the line stopped Saturday runs.
"We're pretty far away from the city," said Crowley, 26. "If you wanted to go to a festival, you're screwed. You would have to drive in."
While some Metra directors said they could "live with" the new proposed cuts, Brad O'Halloran said they didn't make any sense.
"What they were basically talking about was a savings of less than $1 million a year, and you're talking about a budget of over half a billion dollars," said the Orland Park village trustee. "I'm one vote, but I will be heard."
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Western Springs who was instrumental in expanding SouthWest Service, said that while he recognized Metra's "harsh fiscal realities," he urged the agency to "select options that do the least harm to the public."
A key factor in determining the extent of the price hikes and service cuts will be calculating the rising cost of diesel. Officials are considering whether to "lock in" to a fixed diesel contract or follow the market price.
Metra most recently raised fares last year, when weekend fares rose to $7 from $5, and the price of one-way tickets went up an average of 6 percent. Metra raised regular weekday fares 10 percent in 2008.
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