Metra: No fare hike this time, but cuts are ahead without state funding

In a somewhat unusual and unexpected move, Metra’s board of directors on Wednesday voted to not raise fares in 2019.

It wasn’t a vote to reject a fare hike. There was never even an official motion to do so, although the agency’s staff had suggested that the board consider three options: raising fares 25 cents per ride, 50 cents per ride, or doing nothing.

Metra has raised fares four times in the last four years, and some observers had expected to hear the same reasons for doing so as the agency’s proposed 2019 budget was unveiled Wednesday.

Not this time, Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said.

Instead, Metra will spend the next year highlighting the need for more state funding while sounding the alarm about the system’s deterioration and possible “drastic changes in service levels” if that funding does not materialize, officials said.

In late 2014 Metra unveiled a $2.4 billion plan to modernize its rolling stock and install the federally mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) safety system. Metra had counted on the legislature to approve a $1.1 billion state bond program, along with fare increases, to generate capital, as well as an additional $1.3 billion contribution from the state.

The promised $1.1 billion was cut to $865 million, and the $1.3 billion “never materialized,” Carlson said.

Other than 2018, Metra’s fare increases were devoted to raising money for capital, that is, locomotives, cars, tracks and other equipment. The agency has conducted “continuous and relentless cost-cutting,” Carlson said.

“The real question is this: Do the people of Northeastern Illinois value Metra and do they want it to survive in its present form?” Carlson asked.

“Absent adequate funding, operating and capital, Metra cannot survive — cannot survive — in its present form,” Carlson said. “Looking ahead to 2020, that is the issue Metra faces.”

Carlson said Metra will be taking a “very hard look” at what it needs to do to survive with its current state and federal funding. Riders, business leaders, municipal officials and especially state legislators will be asked to participate in the planning process, he said.

“Metra is a railroad. Railroads demand large amounts of continuous funding,” Carlson said. “If a railroad is starved for capital, it will continue to run safely, but the trains will run slower and slower until you have an unbearably slow schedule.”

Carlson pointed to three other transit agencies, New Jersey Transit; Washington, D.C.’s Metro; and the Long Island Railroad. These agencies are “suffering” because of underfunded capital needs, Carlson said, and the situation could occur here without “significant change.”

Metra has the best on-time performance, the lowest fares and the lowest operating costs  among its peers, Carlson said. But fares provide only one-third of revenue to operate and invest in the system.

The most tangible result of the 2014 modernization program is the 21 new locomotives Metra has ordered and will start to put in service at the end of the year, and the agency’s ongoing passenger car rehabilitation program, he said. By the end of this year, Metra will have rehabbed about 145 cars and 42 locomotives since the plan was announced, the agency said.

Congress has mandated that Metra, along with other railroads, install Positive Train Control. The system will cost Metra at least $400 million, but the federal government has only provided about 10 percent of that funding, he said.

“After five years of fare increases, no state capital program, it is time to recognize that we need to revisit our tactics,” Carlson said. “The fare increases raise only nickels and dimes relative to  Metra’s billions of dollars in capital needs.”

Metra needs a minimum of $250 million annually and a minimum of 200 new passenger cars, at a cost of approximately $600 million,

Going forward, Carlson said, Metra will suspend its 10-year modernization program until there is a “more sustainable” capital funding plan. “This is a ‘pause’ to develop a new plan that works,” Carlson said.

He said there would be a new effort among Metra users, pubic officials, and others to tell state legislators that Metra needs sustained capital funding program to maintain its existing service level in the 2020s.

“Otherwise, drastic changes in service levels or other programs may need to shrink to a size our resources can sustain,” Carlson said.

Other members of Metra’s board agreed that a fare hike was not the answer, but that sounding the alarm and applying pressure was.

Stephen Palmer, who represents Southwest Cook County, called the move “a very amazing proposal that I don’t think many many people were expecting to see.”

Ken Koehler, from McHenry County, said Metra is in “dire straits.”

“If we don’t get a reasonable capital plan from the state of Illinois, we cannot move forward” on new service,” Koehler said.

Koehler referred to a request earlier in the meeting from Chicago State University’s president to improve service to the Metra Electric line’s station at 95th and Cottage Grove.

Koehler predicted that more people are going to leave Illinois if they don’t have good public transportation. “I tell you what — it’s not going to take too long,” he said.

Tim Balderman, who represents Will County, said he didn’t support a fare increase at this time because it would only be “putting a Band Aid on a gaping wound.”

While conceding that “no one wants to talk about cutting lines,” Balderman strongly advocated  laying out a plan for service cuts if no help from the state was forthcoming.

“No one wants to hear about discontinuing lines.… But the only way that Springfield is going to get the message is if we are serious — I mean by having an actual plan that we are going to implement if we don’t get the appropriate funding,” said Balderman, who is also mayor of New Lenox.

He said Metra needs to be clear about what the consequences.

“OK, Springfield, if you do not deliver, this is what will happen…. We can’t talk about it, we can’t threaten it, we have to do it,” Balderman said.

John Zediker, who represents DuPage County, said he opposed a fare increase four years ago, and now agreed that Metra had to “set priorities” and look at unprofitable operations.

“We cannot balance our capital, or our operational needs, on the backs of our riders,” said Zediker, of Naperville.

Romayne Brown, of Chicago, said riders “have endured as much as they can.”

John Plante, who represents North Cook County, said he had come to the meeting prepared to support a fare increase. Now, he said, he feared that the ridership “doesn’t get the message” and won’t press legislators enough to action on a funding solution.

Plante, of Winnetka, warned that if state funding doesn’t come, the delays and overcrowding that occurred this summer on the BNSF line will happen on other lines

“Wake up, folks,” Plante said.

Metra has to outline what service cuts would look like in order to impress upon everyone the need, said De Graff, who represents South Cook. He said he envisioned a gradual shutdown affecting all lines.

“It shouldn’t be this line or that line, it should be all lines,” De Graff said.

— Richard Wronski

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