Metra CEO can't rule out possibility of increasing fares

Written By Rosalind Rossi Posted: 08/15/2014, 06:25pm

Metra’s CEO Friday would not rule out a fare increase to the agency’s 150,000 daily riders next year, saying all options were being weighed to bridge upkeep costs that far outstrip revenues.

“There’s nothing off the table. We’re looking at a lot of different things,’’ CEO Don Orseno told reporters.

No clear decision has been made yet, Orseno said. However, riders should know Metra’s intentions by next month, when it unveils its proposed budget for next fiscal year.

Orseno’s comments to reporters followed a monthly Metra Board meeting in which back-to-back staff presentations set the table for defending a 2015 fare hike.

Board members were told that a Metra analysis indicated Metra’s average monthly fare of $175 is far lower than four of five comparable transit systems serving areas around New York City, Newark and Boston. Averages for those peers, similarly calculated, ranged from $277 to $313.

Even additional adjustment for Chicago’s lower cost of living gave Metra a lower average fare, officials said.

Only southeast Pennsylvania’s commuter rail average was lower, at $162.

Officials conceded that since 2010, Metra has raised fares three times since 2010 — more than any of its peers.

That included a record hike, of up to 30 percent, in 2012 that then-CEO Alex Clifford blamed on previous administrators who “kicked the problems down the road.’’ Friday’s figures seemed to bear that out by indicating that since 1990, the agency’s monthly fare average has increased 60 percent while the peer average has jumped 124 percent.

The next presentation, on capital needs, indicated Metra will need $320 million to keep its system in a “state of good repair’’ next fiscal year, but anticipates getting only $210 million in revenue to cover those costs.

The gap between revenue and capital needs just keeps building, officials said. To address the backlog, Metra will need an additional $6.6 billion over the next 10 years, officials predicted.

“Any amount we don’t get just adds to the backlog,’’ Metra spokesman Michael Gillis explained.

Faced with those figures, board member Don DeGraff outted the elephant in the room.

“Nobody wants a fare increase but we have to be responsible,’’ DeGraff told fellow board members.

With Congress unable to reach agreement on a long-term transportation bill, “We can’t depend on Uncle Sam,’’ board member John Plante said later.

Plante said revenue generators range from fare hikes to loan agreements to issuing bonds — something Metra has been loathe to do in the past.

Riders probably don’t care if Metra’s average fare is lower than most of its peers, Plante said.

“If the fares go up, they are not going to like it,’’ he said.

How to fund the system’s capital needs and whether a fare increase should be part of the solution is a “complex matter” that staff has been studying for months, Metra Chair Martin Oberman said. He said he would not “shoot from the hip” and talk about a fare hike until board staff completed its examination of all options.




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