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Metra: Fare hikes could average 28% in 2012


Chicago Tribune
September 17, 2011
By Richard Wronski

After months of flashing the warning signals, Metra sounded the horn loud and clear Friday: Ticket prices will likely skyrocket in 2012, with most riders paying $30 to $40 more a month.

Under a plan recommended by the commuter rail line's staff, fares would increase across the board by an average of nearly 28 percent.

The cost of monthly passes — used by most riders — would go up an average of 29.8 percent; 10-ride tickets would increase an average of 32.2 percent; and the cost of one-way tickets would jump about 17.3 percent, according to the proposal.

The robust hikes will still need to be tweaked, but could get tentative approval from Metra's board next month.

The higher ticket costs were the first specific numbers Metra has offered to the public since officials started cautioning about the fare hikes in June. Metra said the hikes are needed to offset a 2012 deficit now estimated at $64.7 million, but originally projected as high as $100 million.

"We have never before been faced with a challenge of this magnitude," said Metra CEO Alex Clifford.

On previous occasions, Clifford has said the agency might need to increase rates by 20 percent for 2012, followed by a smaller increase in 2013 and regular increases to offset inflation after that. But those options weren't mentioned Friday.

Some commuters at Union Station said Friday that they were not pleased with the idea of shelling out more for their monthly passes.

Luz Cavazos, of Oak Lawn, would see her monthly ticket rise 30 percent, a price she believes isn't worth the quality of service.

"It's aggravating," said Cavazos, 40, who rides the SouthWest Service Line. "We run into a lot of traffic and switching problems. It never gets here on time, especially when you're coming to work. It usually runs 12 to 14 minutes late, a couple of times a week."

The last time Metra raised regular weekday fares, by 10 percent, was in 2008. Last year, the agency hiked weekend fares to $7 from $5, and the price of one-way tickets about 6 percent.

Metra's board of directors is scheduled to get a formal fare increase proposal at its next meeting Oct. 14. Clifford said Friday's numbers are likely to change slightly between now and then.

Metra's board won't vote on any increase until November, after hearings are held to hear public comment.

The directors, meanwhile, gave a final thumbs-down to cutting any services, rejecting suggestions to scale back some uncrowded daily and weekend trains and other options such as extra trains for Bears and White Sox games.

The agency also said it was stepping up efforts to ensure it was getting all the money it should. Under a campaign called "Be Fair, Pay the Fare," Metra will ask riders to report conductors who don't collect fares, or passengers who don't pay.

The board deferred action, with no discussion, on extending a $225,000 contract for railroad consultant George Avery Grimes, who has been acting as Clifford's top deputy since April. Grimes told the Tribune he was "alarmed" when he rode a Metra train and found the conductor reading a newspaper.

Metra's fares are distance based, and the averages cover a wide spread. Under the staff proposal, some monthly passes would increase as much as 66 percent, others as little as 21 percent.

Officials say that even with the proposed higher fares, the cost of taking Metra each day is significantly less than what riders in other big cities pay. Riding Metra, they say, saves commuters hundreds of dollars a month over the cost of driving and parking.

Jenniece Thompson, of Riverside, wasn't buying that. She said her monthly pass would jump from less than $60 to almost $92.

"I can afford it fortunately, but that's a huge increase for that short a distance," said Thompson, 27. "That's almost how much I'd pay to get gas. It makes me consider just driving to work."

Metra officials insist they are reducing costs while asking for more revenue from customers.

The agency is cutting $4.4 million next year from operations and administration, but faces $62.7 million in additional expenses, including $26.3 million in diesel fuel alone, officials said.

"The need for additional funding in 2012 is critical," said Metra Budget Director Jim Mikus.

Concerns the agency might cut service struck a nerve with several board members and their constituencies.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., rallied opposition from dozens of South Side and southwest suburban officials against weekend reductions on the SouthWest Service Line.

Director Jim LaBelle, of Lake County, called the proposed service cuts "more symbolic than real," while Will County's Jack Partelow said they were "not worth the savings."

Metra will consider other measures to increase ticket revenue, such as reducing the discounts available for monthly and ten-ride tickets.

Anything to ease the pain would help Lourdes Norwick of Downers Grove, whose monthly pass costs about $155 and who said ditching the train isn't an option.

"It stinks but there's nothing I can do about it, is there?" said Norwick, 44. "I have to get to work. I don't want to drive. I wouldn't work in Chicago if I had to drive.",0,6519070,full.story

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