Katherine Hutchison of West Andersonville plans to take the CTA as much as possible — and Metra as little as possible — once Metra raises its fares Feb. 1.
Hutchinson is doing what many other commuters probably are doing if they live in the three main Metra travel zones also served by the CTA. She’s crunching the numbers and weighing the pros and cons of hopping a Metra train instead of a CTA L car when next month rolls around.
“For people who have the two options, Metra is just not competitive against the CTA anymore,” said Hutchison, an editor for a legal publishing company. “And the more they increase the fares, the less competitive they are with the CTA.”
Metra officials concede they could lose some riders this year after fares increase an average of 10.8 percent across all zones and types of tickets. Metra is projecting 10 consecutive years of fare increases, compounding to an estimated 68 percent fare jump over that time, in part to bankroll a 10-year, $2.4 billion modernization plan.
Some of the biggest Feb. 1 increases in the price of monthly passes — Metra’s most popular form of ticket — will hit the three Metra zones closest to the Loop that overlap with CTA service in Chicago and sections of Evanston, Skokie, Oak Park, Forest Park and Cicero.
Monthly passes within Zone A will increase 19 percent; riders from Zone A to B will see a 17 percent jump; and commuters from A to C will face a 12 percent increase.
Officials say some of the percentage increases may look high only because the original fares were low.
Even so, monthly Zone A and B tickets that used to be cheaper than a $100 CTA monthly pass will approach or cost nearly the same as a CTA pass – but offer far more limited service, being valid only inside those Metra zones. And Zone C riders, such as those traveling to and from Evanston, clearly will get a cheaper ride using the CTA.
Across all zones as of Feb. 1, a one-way L ride and a CTA 7-day pass will be less expensive than the closest comparable Metra ticket for one or 10 rides.
Only time will tell exactly how many defections Metra will experience. It’s predicting the vast majority of riders will stick around during the several years it will take to start overhauling its fleet with the new fare proceeds.
Emails obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times under a Freedom of Information Act request showed Hutchison was among several riders to warn Metra of possible defections of riders — to the CTA, to driving or even to bicycling — in emailed remarks about the fare increase.
“CTA here I come!!!” emailed Kathleen Kazemek. “Plus I can take either since I am on the UP Northwest line Jefferson Park stop.”
“While the convenience of Metra is worth a moderate premium over CTA’s $2.25 per ride, it strikes me that the proposed fares in those close-in zones expand that premium to the point where many commuters will defect to the CTA,” emailed Elliot Frolichstein-Appel, an Evanston resident who supported the fare increase but feared defections.
Metra is projecting a 1.1 percent drop in revenue due to ridership loss and the change in the type of tickets purchased this year. It also projects ridership will stabilize after that despite the prospect of nine more years of fare increases.
“There may be some people who decide to [defect to the CTA], but we don’t think price is the only consideration for riders,” Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. “We think many riders will stick with Metra because it’s more convenient, or it’s a faster choice for them, or they prefer to ride commuter trains, or a combination of those reasons.”
For Hutchison, who can take the CTA Brown Line or Metra’s UP-North Line for two stops, the choice is complicated. The walk to her Metra station is longer but once on board, the ride is faster and more comfortable.
However, if she works late, Metra trains come less frequently. And although a monthly Metra pass will rise from $85.50 to $99.75 — a quarter shy of a CTA monthly pass — the CTA offers more frequent service and a larger service area, including trains to O’Hare and Midway airports. And she likes the elevators and digital signs displaying arrival times the CTA is adding to many stations.
As a result, Hutchison expects to use the CTA as much as possible, but also fill in as needed with rides from a Metra 10-ride ticket. One positive change starting Feb. 1 is that commuters can once again buy a 10-ride Metra ticket for the price of nine single rides.
Another Zone B rider warned Metra by email that “Metra greatly underestimates” how many Zone B riders it will lose.
“Many commuters in Zone B make the choice between more frequent, but less comfortable CTA transit options and less frequent, but far more comfortable Metra options,” wrote Nicole Anderson, a Metra Electric Line rider.
“The fact that these commuters can use the full array of CTA bus routes and L lines for the same price that it costs to purchase a Metra-only ticket means that Metra may lose revenue in Zone B as commuters make the rational decision to switch to CTA because it is a better deal,’’ Anderson wrote.
Metra Board chairman Martin Oberman said only about 150 people emailed Metra about the fare increase out of 150,000 weekday riders. Only a small number of commentators talked of defecting.
“I wouldn’t call that an indication of some overwhelming dissatisfaction,” Oberman said. “Sure, people are grumpy, but are they angry? Are they going to leave? I don’t see it. I think there will be a few but I don’t think it will be many.”
Even with the new fare increase, a Metra ride will still be less than the average of peer agencies nationally, Metra officials contend.
“We still provide a bargain. We provide excellent service and a comfortable ride,” Oberman said. “I hope most riders will stay with us. I think the vast majority will.”
Other Feb. 1 changes include increasing the weekend fare from $7 to $8 and instituting a general no-refund policy. Monthly tickets will be valid until noon on the first business day of the following month, and one-way tickets will be valid for 90 days.
However, a plan to increase the surcharge for buying a ticket on board from $3 to $5 is being delayed until Metra unveils an app that will let riders buy tickets on board with smartphones — probably in late spring or early summer.