Metra's 2014 ridership hit its second-highest level in 30 years, new report shows

Metra’s 2014 ridership second-highest in 30 years, new report shows 

Metra’s 2014 ridership climbed to the second-highest level in the suburban rail agency’s 30-year history — despite a brutal January and lower gas prices, a new report by Metra indicated Thursday.

The one-year, 1.3 percent uptick in ridership — to an estimated 83.4 million trips in 2014 — yielded a 1.3 percent annual uptick in passenger revenue, to $313 billion, ridership reports to be presented to Metra board members Friday indicate.

The 2014 analysis emerges in the same month Metra imposed an average 10.8 percent fare increase — the first of what could be 10 consecutive years of fare hikes. The extra revenue will help bankroll upgrades to Metra’s entire fleet,  expensive but mandatory new safety technology and an estimated 3 percent annual increase in operating expenses, officials say.

Metra has estimated the Feb. 1 fare hike will cost the suburban commuter rail agency a 1.1 percent drop in 2015 fare revenue and then flatten out.

The Metra ridership analysis also follows Chicago Transit Authority Board members’ comments on Wednesday that new CTA figures, shared only at this point with board members, indicate the CTA last year experienced the highest rail ridership in its history.

One Metra report notes that growing Metra ridership came despite a “historically severe winter;” summer ridership that was depressed by the cancellation of one day each of the Taste of Chicago and the Chicago Air and Water Show; and lower gas prices.

With 86 percent of  riders using Metra for work, possible positive influences include a 2.1 percent annual jump in regional employment and a shift in the share of total employment toward downtown Chicago.

Downtown Chicago office occupancy rates increased in 2014 to above 85 percent by the fourth quarter, while outside downtown, rates were barely over 80 percent, Metra’s analysis showed.

In addition, construction on the I-90 Jane Addams Tollway and Illinois Route 59 may have encouraged ridership on the Milwaukee-West, UP-NW and BNSF lines, Metra found.

Of the 11 lines serving Metra riders, UP-NW saw the biggest numerical jump in rides — a bump of more of than 425,000 additional trips — while the North Central line saw the largest percentage increase in rides, of about 8 percent.

The analysis comes amid growing national reports finding that the millennial generation is more likely to take transit than people older than 30.