Metra to raise fares by 25 percent next year

Marshall Cohen

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Metra riders can expect one-way, ten-ride and monthly fares to all rise by an average of 25 percent next year, according to the 2012 proposed budget released Friday.

The fare increases will help close a $53.6 million budget gap, according to a Metra press release.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis attributed the proposed rate hikes to a combination of pressing factors and said Metra simply needs to match its revenues to its expenses.

“The single largest element driving our costs higher is the cost of diesel fuel, which has just been increasing sharply in recent years,” Gillis said. “We also have new federal regulations to follow and higher insurance premiums that are adding to our costs and driving our expenses up.”

In addition to rising costs, Gillis said Metra is suffering from a lack of incoming revenue due to the sagging economy. Metra, along with CTA and Pace, receive proceeds from a regional transportation sales tax in Chicago.

Transportation sales tax is part of the regular sales tax that is tacked on to any purchase made in Cook County, Gillis said. Less consumer spending means Metra, Chicago Transit Authority and Pace receive less money from the city.

“Because the economy has been slow, those sales tax revenues have been far lower than what we projected back in 2008,” he said.

Evanston lies in the C zone on the Metra system. In 2012, the cost of a one-way ticket from this zone will increase from $3.50 to $4.25 if the fare hike is approved by the Metra board of directors Nov. 11. Ten-ride fares will increase from $28.50 to $38.25 and the cost of a monthly pass will jump from $90.45 to $121.00 – a 33 percent hike.

Some Northwestern students, like Shirley Li, rely on public transportation to commute to internships and jobs.

The Medill junior rides the Metra three days each week to her internship at InsideCounsel, a trade publication based near the Ogilvie Transportation Center, the Metra’s downtown hub. She said she is tired of paying the “already expensive” fares.

“I need the public transportation since I don’t have a car on campus, and I don’t have a different way to get to work,” Li said. “I am stuck. There is no way around these increases and I just have to accept it.”

Metra commuters and Evanston residents have had mixed reactions to the proposed increase.

Dan Domenella, a commuter who lives in Lake Forest, said he is not concerned about paying the higher rates even though he is currently unemployed and looking for work.

“To be honest, Metra hasn’t raised their prices in a while so this doesn’t really bother me.” Domenella said. “I’ve been living in Chicago for over 22 years, and even though the Metra isn’t a bargain, it is pretty economical.”

Sue Nardini, an administrator with NU Information Technology, lives an hour away in Cary and was also unfazed by the proposed budget.

“Everyone is struggling to pay their bills,” Nardini said. “Metra is a good, reliable system, and it’s an easy way to get to work.”

Others said the rate increases are too drastic.

Rebecca Marchiel, assistant master of the Public Affairs Residential College, uses the Metra to commute from her home in Albany Park to the NU campus three or four days each week.

“Ten more dollars for a 10-ride pass – that’s crazy,” Marchiel said. “But I guess I can understand why they would raise the prices since a lot of times people can get on and off without actually paying anything at all.”

Evanston resident Kymberly Rodgers was less understanding.

“It’s an outrage, and I’m putting my foot down now,” Rodgers said. “The economy is already messed up, people are already struggling and I don’t know how people are going to make ends meet now with these raised prices.”

The rate increases were not unexpected, Gillis said. In the past few years, Metra has been making ends meet by diverting money from its capital budget, which is supposed to pay for infrastructure improvements, to its operating budget, which pays for day-to-day operations.

“We decided this year that we just cannot do (that)anymore because we have a huge backlog of infrastructure work that we need done, and diverting that money to operations is just digging us into a deeper hole,” Gillis said. “So that practice is ending this year.”

Gillis defended the increases and said the 2012 budget takes difficult but necessary steps in the direction of fiscal sustainibility.

“We understand that this is a pretty substantial increase and we know that it will have an impact on our riders, but we also know that we need to balance our budget now,” he said. “We have to take responsibility and end the practice of diverting capital dollars and now look to the future for investing in this system.”

In addition to rate increases, Metra has already reduced its estimated $60 million deficit by locking in the price of most of its diesel fuel needs, making administrative cuts and also finding other efficiencies that could be streamlined.

Other proposed changes to existing refund policies are aimed at saving money to help close Metra’s budget gap.

One-way tickets will no longer be refundable. Ten-ride tickets are refundable after only three months, instead of one year. Also, the one-way tickets will expire after 14 days instead of one year.

The new budget also proposed eliminating a program that allows young adults to pay half price on weekends and holidays.

The Metra board of directors will vote on the proposed 2012 budget Nov. 11, but before that vote there will be eight public hearings throughout Chicago and its suburbs.

The public hearing that will discuss the northern suburbs, including Evanston, will be held 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at Arl
ington Heights Village Hall, 33 South Arlington Heights Road.

Editor’s note: This article had a spelling error, which has since been corrected. The Daily regrets the error.