Metra board approves 10.8-percent fare increase starting Feb. 1

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Metra Board members Friday unanimously approved fare increases averaging nearly 11 percent next year — the first of 10 years of planned fare boosts — after adding a last-minute mandate for staff to produce a list of possible cost savings in 60 days.

To meet the new mandate, one idea that should be explored is selling the naming rights to some Metra stations — something Philadelphia has done recently, two board members said.

“Everything we can explore we should explore,” Metra Board chairman Martin Oberman said after Friday’s meeting.

However, the green light given Metra’s first-ever long-term plan to deal with the oldest fleet among its peers was “a major step forward,” Oberman said.

“This is the first time in Metra’s history that the board has officially adopted a long-term capital plan,” Oberman said.

The 10-year blueprint would increase fares every year over the coming decade — by a total estimated 68 percent — to bankroll upgrades to Metra’s entire fleet, pay for new mandated safety technology and cover a typical 3 percent annual rise in operating costs.

Board members unanimously approved a 2015 budget Friday packing the biggest fare increase, of 10.8 percent, in the first year of the long-term plan — to start Feb. 1.

But first they had to resolve a curveball thrown into Friday’s meeting by DuPage County board member John Zediker.

Saying “we can’t balance everything on the backs of ridership,” Zediker proposed chopping the 2015 fare increase in half, so ticket prices would only rise an average 5.4 percent next year.

Zedicker said he was concerned about repeated questions from riders as to whether Metra had done everything it could before saddling passengers with higher fares.

Oberman came up with a compromise that prompted Zediker to withdraw his motion and allows the board to meet a Nov. 15 deadline to submit a balanced budget to the Regional Transportation Authority.

The board agreed to go forward with the 10.8 percent boost on Feb. 1 but to require staff to produce a list of possible cost savings in 60 days, as well as to update a previous report on savings from service cuts.

Zediker said he withdrew his proposal because he could see it wouldn’t pass, but he was heartened by the mandate for a list of cost savings because “a goal written down is significantly more likely to occur.”

After Friday’s meeting, Zediker said “any and all options should be on the table” to cut costs or increase revenue, “whether it’s selling [station] naming rights or reducing service.”

However, board member Norm Carlson cautioned that service cuts that would produce the most effective savings would be at rush hour.

And Oberman warned that some riders at public hearings wanted more service for their fare increases, not less.

There were some bright spots among the prospect of next year’s fare bumps.

Metra will be bringing back the popular 10-ride ticket for the price of nine. One-way tickets will be good for 90 days, instead of the current 14. And grace periods on monthly tickets will be restored so they will be valid until noon on the first business day of the following month.

However, the extra charge for buying a ticket on a train will rise from $3 to $5. Weekend passes will increase from $7 to $8. The current refund policy will be replaced with a general no-refund policy.

Overall, Oberman has contended, a Metra ticket will still cost less than that of peer agencies and represents a solid value. And officials said, they will scour the budget annually to try to trim future fare boosts.

Although the Feb. 1 fare increase averages out to 10.8 percent across all tickets and zones, some riders will be hit harder than others.

Some senior one-way and monthly tickets will jump more than 22 percent next year. And by year 10, the ring of riders closest to Chicago’s Loop — in areas served by the CTA — would see at least a 100 percent boost in the cost of their monthly tickets, to $157.

However, Oberman has said some individual ticket increases only seem high because the prices currently are so low.

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