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Fare hike OK'd by Metra board will average 2 percent

Metra board members Wednesday approved an average 2 percent fare increase — the second of 10 expected over a decade — as the board’s chairman labeled attempts to gather public input on the proposal a “total failure.”

The increase, effective Feb. 1, will boost fares a flat amount per ticket purchased, regardless of the distance traveled.

The most popular Metra ticket — a monthly one — will increase by $2.50. A 10-ride ticket will rise by $1.75. A one-way ticket will increase 25 cents. There will be no change in the price of a one-way reduced-ride ticket.

The fare increase, reflected in Wednesday’s approval of a $945.5 million budget for 2016, came after Board Chairman Martin Oberman ordered staff to use its “creativity” to figure out a way to boost attendance at future budget and fare hearings.

Oberman, known as an outspoken progressive during his term as an alderman representing Lincoln Park, called this year’s eight public hearings a “total failure” and a “complete waste of time” because they drew only 20 visitors and 24 comments by others.

He noted that he specifically requested that one hearing be held in Union Station — Metra’s busiest location — to attract more visitors than the mere seven that showed up at last year’s sole downtown budget hearing at Metra headquarters.

“We had posters all over Union Station. Eleven people stumbled in.” He added in jest: “Maybe if we had a cocktail bar we could have had a few more. . . .

“Either we are just about perfect or we aren’t doing this right in the age of social media,” he said.

The thin turnout, Oberman said, must indicate that riders are “generally satisfied.” But some riders have said they consider fare proposals such a fait accompli that appearing at hearings on them is fruitless.

Board members noted that holding hearings costs money and time, but not much emerged this year in exchange. Metra CEO Don Orseno said the agency used social media and other methods to publicize the hearings, so the result was “frustrating.”

“We can only get better if we hear from the public,” Orseno said.

In comments on the fare plan, some riders had questioned why commuters closest to the Loop were being asked to shoulder the same flat increase as those farthest away, whose rides use more fuel.

The new rates will trigger defections to the CTA among those riders closest to the Loop, some predicted.

“Thanks a lot for the fare increase. Have fun losing ridership. That’s what’s gonna happen,” Kevin Peterson of Citizens Taking Action for Dependent Riders said at the Union Station hearing.

The 2 percent average increase was less than the 5 percent originally predicted when Metra last year unveiled a 10-year modernization program funded by 10 consecutive years of fare boosts. The plan is aimed at overhauling the oldest fleet among peers, covering an expensive safety mandate, and bankrolling typical annual increases in operating costs.

Metra’s 2016 budget presumes the transit agency will not suffer the estimated $20.8 million cut in funding proposed at one point by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner and lawmakers have been stuck in a budget stalemate for months.

After Wednesday’s vote, Oberman said the flat fare increases across all zones of the same ticket were “as close to fair as was arithmetically possible.” Metra could not impose a 2 percent increase on every ride because ticket amounts would then equal odd numbers, he said. Fares have to be in increments of a quarter to ease collection.

Metra hopes to hire a consulting firm this year to analyze how it might change its fare structure by next year, Oberman said. Offering lower fares for college students is “very much on the agenda,” as well as considering peak-hour pricing, he said.

Board members “want to examine every alternative,” Oberman said. The job is complicated by the current multiple zones now served by 11 lines that cover 500 miles, he said.

Data released Wednesday indicated that year-to-date, Metra ridership is down 1.7 percent but fare revenue is up 8.2 percent.

Those numbers pretty well reflect what Metra had predicted would result from this year’s 10.8 percent average fare increase, Orseno said.

The combined slight ridership drop but bigger overall fare revenue increase is “meeting our expectations,” Orseno said.

On Wednesday, Metra also touted a 97 percent on-time rate for October. That marked the eighth consecutive month Metra exceeded its goal of having a 95 percent or better on-time rate. “On-time” trains are defined as those that arrive at their last station less than six minutes behind schedule.

Oberman called the results “spectacular” and quipped that Metra was “closing in on 100 percent; only 3 percent to go.”

Also Wednesday, the Pace board of directors approved a 25 cent increase in fares paid with cash, saying the move was intended to encourage riders to use the new Ventra fare payment system. It is the first Pace fare increase since 2009, officials noted.

The change was approved Wednesday along with the suburban bus agency’s 2016 budget.